Women’s rights are not a “cultural issue”

Yesterday I blogged about a teacher at a Catholic school, Emily Herx, who was fired because she got IVF treatments. I received several comments that because of freedom of religion, the church can fire Herx if it wants to.

That argument doesn’t hold; it’s based on the idea that human rights for women are not important. Too many Americans believe that women’s rights are a “cultural” issue and not a political one.

If the Catholic Church “believed” that African-Americans could not be teachers or that adults should have sex with children, the American government would call that illegal. Freedom of religion does not give a religious institution the mandate to violate basic human rights.

As I wrote yesterday:

In 2010, Herx learned that she suffered from a medical condition that caused infertility. At that time, she told her principal she needed time off for IVF treatment. Her request was granted and the principal allegedly told Herx: “You are in my prayers.”…

Herx is claiming sex discrimination and disabilities discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and requesting lost wages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and compensation for her mental anguish and emotional distress.

Just like infertility, pregnancy is also medical condition. Women have all kinds of serious health complications from ectoptic pregnancies to hemorrhaging. Contraception is preventative health care. Women’s bodies are different than men’s bodies and have different medical needs. To deny women health care based on those differences is to deny women a basic human right. It’s sex discrimination, and it is appalling that this kind of abuse is tolerated in America.

When I was in college, Apartheid was the government of South Africa. Every day, there were protests against South Africa’s racist government in our campus quad. At the same time, I was taking a sociology class where we learned that cliterodectomies were performed in some countries in Africa. I was taught in my class that to condemn that procedure was wrong; it was to enforce my Western beliefs on another country. It was in this way that I was taught the concept of “relative ethics.” It took me years after my “education” to recover from that kind of teaching, to be able to say that cliterodectomies are wrong, wherever and whenever they happen.

The Taliban is gender apartheid. But the first time I ever heard about the horrible gender crimes supported by that government was not in a campus quad or even a sociology class, but in the back pages of Newsweek, where the celebrity news is. In the Nineties, I read that Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife, was trying to raise funds and awareness to help women under the Taliban rule. At that time, I was a producer for a talk radio station. I brought the article to the host of the show and asked him to talk about it on air. “Have you heard about this?” I said. He responded that our show was local, that no one in the Bay Area would care about the Taliban. “How is it relevant to our lives?” he asked.

Of course, the Taliban became relevant to Americans on 9/11. I don’t believe that a country, even ours, can isolate itself from that kind of hatred and violation of human rights, as much as we try our best to ignore them unless a celebrity happens to host a fundraiser.

In 2009, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn published Half the Sky, a book that documented sex trafficking, acid burnings, poverty, and lack of access to healthcare for women all around the world. The thesis of Half the Sky is that the world is losing its most valuable resource: women. The writers argue that in the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. That in this century, our century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for global gender equality.

I was certain that after the publication of Half the Sky and the media that the book initially received, Americans would finally get that demanding full human rights for women is essential to our survival as a human race, that human rights for women is not a cultural issue. But right now in America, in 2012, we’re fighting over contraception? In our Presidential election? For Americans not to allow all women access to contraception and to basic health care is a human rights violation. Until our government stops seeing women’s rights as a cultural issue, how can we ask the rest of the world to?

Maybe this all goes back to what my professor was trying to teach me in Sociology 101: Americans are hypocrites.

25 thoughts on “Women’s rights are not a “cultural issue”

  1. While I do believe in women’s rights. I also believe that establishments should have the right to fire people who do not abide by their contract. While I disagree with the CC beliefs I do not think they should be forced to keep her. (Also why should they be forced to give contraception in their health care?).

    When I was younger I was a teacher at a Jewish school in NYC. I understood that I could not pork in the school. I abided by these rules. If you want contraception you should not teach at a catholic school.

    While I despise the Westborough Baptist Church I smile at the fact that they have the right to act like hatred filled idiots.

  2. And I just saw in the news today that Saudi Arabia has decided not to allow women to participate in their next Olympic team. Can’t wait to see that country banned from competing in the Olympics because of their practicing of apartheid. What, no?

  3. This is not about “religious liberty.” It is about the continuing harassment of employees (primarily women) of Catholic institutions, and denying women their reproductive rights, as well as a violation of right to privacy. I hope Ms. Herx wins her lawsuit against these bastards.

    From CNN via Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:

    “…But some legal observers say that because Herx worked at a Catholic school, her decision to undergo fertility treatments could be construed as a clash with the school’s broader mission.
    “The doctrine exists in order to protect the religious institution’s right to protect their message,” said Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.
    But Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disagreed, saying that deeming an English teacher “a minister” in a religious school constitutes “Exhibit A of what goes wrong if the exception becomes too broad.”
    “If a teacher of purely secular subjects is considered a minister, then the implication of that is that everyone who works for a Catholic school would be considered a minister,” he said. “It becomes an open license to discriminate.”


  4. I fully agree with what you and Kasi write here. BUT. Religions (especially Abrahamic religions) put women in a different category. Our laws protect those religions, even going so far as to give them tax exempt status. They are private organizations and can wantonly discriminate as they see fit. Until Americans stop kowtowing to oppressive religions, (and Christianity is oppressive, especially to women) we are going to have to put up with the horrible things those religions do to women. The best solution is for people in the religion to leave it when their leaders do things like this. When parishioners take their money with them, the church will listen.
    This woman had access to reproductive services, she just chose to work for a company (The catholic church) that prohibits the use of those services. A person can go be drunk all day, but if they want to work for the government, they have to be sober.
    This is problem with the authority religious organizations are afforded by our government more than how oppressive the organizations are.

    • Hi Skeletal,

      I disagree. Herx was treated for a medical condition and she as fired for that. Just as the church could not fire Herx for being black or being disabled, regardless of their beliefs, they cannot fire her for this.


      • yeah, but she broke her employers rules. I agree those rules are foolish at best and harmful at worst. But they were plainly stated, again and again, the Catholic church does NOT want women in control of their own sexuality. The church does not view anything to do with sexuality as a medical condition, it views it as “sinful”. Something the Catholic church like to think it knows a lot about.
        And the church could fire Herx for being black if they pressed it. Mark of Cain and all. They could fire her for being female and in a position of authority, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority” Timothy, 2:12. It is all in their ancient book. They just know better than to try something like that. But they are still all over women’s reproductive rights and people keep letting them do that. She worked for the wrong company.
        According the Catholic church, IVF will leave “…extra embryos in the laboratory…” This is against their policy. She broke policy. She was immoral and sinful (according to the church). They have legal rights to fire her.
        While infuriating to read, this article explains it from the church’s view: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/should-catholic-schools-be-able-to-fire-teachers-over-fertility-treatments/256427/
        The church wants absolute control over the reproductive habits of its female adherents and their followers are totally happy to let them do that.

        • Hi Skeletal,

          The Catholic church’s rules aren’t “foolish,” they violate human rights. Just because followers accept them doesn’t justify them. Followers of a religion could believe in having sex with children or in refusing to allow black to be employed. That’s illegal.


      • Again, I totally agree with you. I personally find Christianity in general and Catholicism to be very harmful and sometimes deadly in their views towards anyone who is not a well-off, white, heterosexual male. However. American’s love their religion and are often willing to let a religion do what it pleases with women. I don’t agree it should be that way, it should be illegal. I just don’t see that happening anytime soon. Not until people stop giving the church power over their private lives. This woman gave the church that power. She said she believes as they want her to and will do as they say. Until she differed in one important idea. She should never have taken that job. If people stop working for immoral employers, those employers will change their tune.
        Again, I just don’t see that happening due to the unearned respect religion is given in our society. Women and LGBT are at the bottom of the legal rights list, nothing show that more obviously than church’s and their unopposed oppression and bullying.

      • At worst the Church MAY have violated the ADA. There is no violation of “human rights” here. This is an employment issue, not a human rights issue. You can’t get fired for having a medical condition. You can get fired for treating it a certain way. That’s like saying you can’t fire an air traffic controller for treating his back pain with marijuana. You can’t fire him for his back condition, but you can fire him for how he treats it. The Church thinks IVF is murder. They tell their employees they must uphold the Church’s values. If you don’t, guess what, they can fire you.

        Bottom line: the Church didn’t fire her for having a medical condition, they fired her (actually, didn’t renew her contract, which is different) because they believe she committed murder to treat it.

        • hi tfurious,

          “they believe she committed murder to treat it.”

          Again: This “belief” cannot dictate medical treatment. Women’s bodies are different than men’s and require different medical care. Not to allow and not to cover medical treatment required for female bodies is sex discrimination.


          • If only it were that simple, though. For one, IVF is, for all practical purposes, already not covered for the vast majority of medical plans, and only 13 states require insurance companies to provide coverage for IVF. So, by your argument, 37 states are also discriminating against women and, by extension, committing a violation of “human rights.”

            Secondly, the Church did not deny her the right to pursue the requested therapy. That simply didn’t happen. So the Church did not commit the sex discrimination you describe. (Now, if you’re talking about contraception, that’s a different subject, and you have a point there, but this thread is specifically about Herx’s case, and it’s the only point I’ve been addressing).

            The Church terminated their relationship with her because she violated their code of conduct. It’s no different than if she had gotten an abortion. And there are many that would argue that the Church is well within its rights to do that, regardless of how much I may personally disagree with that. Just like how Augusta National is allowed to be a male-only club. And those are not a violation of someone’s “human rights.” Are they sexist? Yep. Discriminatory? You bet. But violations of human rights?

            The fact of the matter is that the belief didn’t dictate medical treatment. She was still free to persue and did in fact recieve the requested treatment. So again I’m not sure what human rights violation you’re alleging occured here. Unless you think it’s a human right to be able to dictate the terms of your employment to an employer.

            We’re really not far apart on this. I’m really just hung up on the idea of “human rights.”

  5. I have enjoyed some of your posts on different topics previously, but would argue that your analogy above referencing contraception as preventative health care because pregnancy could be classified as a medical condition doesn’t apply well. To me, it seems like the analogy of someone wanting free access to diet pills because they are choosing to eat poorly and not exercise. Obesity could also be classified as a medical condition.

    Ultimately though, this current discussion is not about the choices we make. It is about whether certain groups of the population should be footing the bill for others’ choices.

    Also, to clarify how the occasional struggle between religious freedom and the law works out, may want to give this short video a watch. I found it interesting and like Rep. Gowdy, I am interested in what will be upheld by the law.

    • Hi Shanon,

      People get all kinds of medical treatment for obesity from treatment to high blood pressure to diabetes.

      Again, women’s bodies are different than men’s. Women’s bodies have different medical needs. Not to treat women’s heath needs because of religious beliefs is sex discrimination.


      • Women’s bodies *are* different (and it is refreshing to hear someone else say that!), but I disagree that contraception is a “medical need”. Yes, I know there are health conditions that contraceptives help regulate in women but more often than not, the contraceptive is a “band-aid” for the symptoms. Until a woman’s root cause of that particular condition is addressed, contraceptives are only masking the issue. Sometimes (as in the case of a few young women I know) in fact, the contraceptives cover the issue so well that it gets worse (e.g. endometriosis for some) and *significantly* more threatening to a woman’s overall health down the road. So who ultimately is truly looking out for “women’s health”? I would not say its those pushing contraceptive use.

        I had written more in re: to your previous post and the issue of IVF, but I am not going to go down that road. Suffice it to say it is an issue we disagree on. 😉

      • 1) Pregnancy is not inevitable and 2) there are associations (depends on how you define “religion”) that believe it is okay to have sex with children and no one is telling them that can not believe that (heard of NAMBLA??).

  6. I remember reading about gender apartheid in Afghanistan before 9/11, but it sure did feel like nobody knew about it or cared. Like you I was frustrated that because the oppressed group was women, it was considered a cultural issue. I used to read posts from a group called RAWA which was a resistance group of women within Afghanistan. I had ordered some informative cards with little pieces of buquas pinned on them from the Feminist Majority Foundation – I hoped to get people talking about it. Then 9/11 happened and all of a sudden we were bombing them and using the “rescue” of the women there as a justification. I was so frustrated because it didn’t look like a rescue operation to me at all. The women of RAWA said that the Northern Alliance was responsible for just as many atrocities against women as the Taliban was. I wondered, if we were serious about trying to help these women, why we weren’t talking to the women of RAWA about the kind of help they wanted from us? Of course, helping Afghan women was never our real goal. They just provided a convenient excuse.

    I think that “relative ethics” idea is worthwhile only in the sense that the leadership to bring about change needs to come from within the culture rather than being imposed from the outside. I don’t mean to suggest that we should always mind our own business, but when we do intervene we need to examine the ways in which we might contribute to or benefit from the thing we are trying to change and the ways our help might actually make things worse. We need to be really careful not to assume that we know how to help and we need to ask lots of questions of the people we are trying to help about how we should go about it. I think it can be hard to define exactly what is right in a particular situtation sometimes, but because just because it can be difficult, I don’t think we are supposed to throw our hands up as if there is no right or wrong at all. Sometimes I think that “cultural relativism” idea was actually a disingenous attempt by conservatives to speak the language of multiculturalism just long enough to put liberals in a shame spiral and shut them up. It may seem complicated and difficult to ensure human rights for women while still respecting religious freedom, but it’s not impossible. There are limits to the behaviors society excuses for religious reasons. Those who insist it’s impossible to resolve the apparent conflict between religious freedom and human rights don’t understand either concept very well, IMO.

    • Kasi, From First Amendment:: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercising thereof; . . .”
      That’s exactly where the problem is. The first part prohibits congress
      from establishing religion so we don’t have a “state religion” but on
      the other hand religions are free to exercise whatever their faith demands
      of them. So it’s wiggle room, that second part for the CC to have a school
      and demand their teachers to be what they call ministers of the CC beliefs.
      IMO it boils down to what is stated in Emily Herx’s contract, but still the CC may win if it’s a one year contract because what happened is that they said they would not renew her contract next school year.

      • I think it is obvious that free exercise of religion does not include freedom to violate other people’s civil rights. Anyone’s religion is between them and God – it isn’t interfering with someone’s personal exercise of religion to tell them they can’t dictate someone else’s religious beliefs or practices. Part of the problem here is that we have this ridiculous system where a person’s health care is tied to their employment – if we had a single payer system, a lot of these problems would never come up.

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