San Francisco’s Parental Leave Policy: A Pro-Life Dissent

Women hold up signs at a rally supporting paid family leave at City Hall in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is voting on whether to require six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents - a move that would be a first for any jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

We’re stuck in a position. If we don’t support it, you’re the bad guys.
Henry Karnilowicz

I think I have pretty decent pro-life credentials. My family and I have prayed for an end to abortion in church, at home, and outside our local abortion clinic (now closed, thank God). We’ve long supported, financially and otherwise, our local Right to Life affiliate, as well as the Women’s Care Center, an organization assisting pregnant women in need. I’ve written about pro-life matters in print and online, and I’ve spoken up in defense of preborn and all human life whenever given the chance.

That’s why I felt so conflicted when I saw my pro-life friends give their social media thumbs-up to San Francisco’s new parental leave mandate. The city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the law on April 6, and it provides for six weeks of full pay to new parents of babies and adopted children. It applies to most employers, who’d have to make up the 45% of income that isn’t covered by the state’s already generous parental leave policy.

On the surface, I get that this appears eminently pro-family and pro-life: extended benefits + no loss of income (or job) = more babies/less abortion. Many celebrating the new law pointed out that it is a tiny step in the direction of catching up to other developed countries that adopted such seemingly family-friendly policies long ago.

Yet, I’m uneasy with SF’s new mandate for at least two reasons – one economic, one theological. Feel free to set me straight on either one.

With regards to economics, I confess up front to a total lack of credentials – “dilettante” would be too generous in my case; “dabbler” would be closer to the mark. Yet, how much economic theory do you need to know to foresee that forcing businesses to provide workers something (parental leave, minimum wage, whatever) will mean less work. “By the simplest and most basic economics,” Thomas Sowell laid out, “a price artificially raised tends to cause more to be supplied and less to be demanded than when prices are left to be determined by supply and demand in a free market.”

Many large U.S. organizations already provide generous parental leave options voluntarily, without governmental coercion, and potential employees who are family oriented aggressively compete to work for them. By compelling other businesses with tighter margins to follow suit will inevitably result in job cuts to balance the books. As SF Small Business Commissioner Stephen Adams put it, “Can we make the Board of Supervisors run a business, meet payroll, so they understand how these things work? Enough is enough is enough. This is bad for small business.” Wouldn’t this have the unintended consequence of putting new stress on families?

So much for economics; on to Catholic social teaching – to wit, human freedom, distributism, and subsidiarity.

Certainly it’s true that our social institutions have a role to play in defending and strengthening family life, which naturally includes promoting material well-being. “The political community has a duty to honor the family,” the Catechism reads, including safeguarding adequate family benefits (2211). The question remains, however, as to the best way of making that happen “in keeping with the country’s institutions,” as the Catechism puts it, especially with a view toward respecting human freedom. It’s clear that there’s no virtue in being compelled to do the right thing. In fact, if anything, coerced actions in the name of charity usually produce the exact opposite: resentment, friction, and division.

So what to do? That’s where distributism comes in – an economic via media between socialism and unbridled capitalism. In a recent reflection on Acts 4 and the early church’s attempt to care for the poor, Relevant Radio’s Fr. Rich Simon flatly asserted that, as Catholics, “we are distributiststhat is, we want to get as much property as possible in the hands of as many people as possible, each under his own fig tree and his own vine, as the Scriptures has it.” Simon went on to contrast state-controlled economies and capitalism, concluding that, in practice, they both lead to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few – although capitalism is at least honest about human nature and our greedy tendencies.

“Distributism is the way to go for a Catholic,” Fr. Simon concluded, for it takes into account a realistic human anthropology and respects human freedom. For Simon and others of like mind, distributism in practice means that “if you can buy something for three cents more at a mom and pop store, buy it there instead of the big box store – it’s that simple.”

It may sound terribly naïve, but the distributism ideal seems to be the only way that we can respect the Catholic principle of subsidiarity – the idea that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order,” in the words of Pope St. John Paul II (Centesimus Annus 48; CCC 1883). In the matter at hand, subsidiarity would seem to require that disagreements over what benefits an employer owes his employees ought to be negotiated without recourse to state interference.

This is vitally important because political solutions to social inequities are notoriously fickle – governments and philosophies of governing come and go, and if the state is the only one guaranteeing our rights, then our rights are never really guaranteed. Moral persuasion as well as appeals to mutually beneficial consequences should be exhausted before imposing legislated mandates (cf. CCC 1940). “Right relations between employers and employees, between those who govern and citizens,” the Catechism teaches us, “presuppose a natural good will in keeping with the dignity of human persons concerned for justice and fraternity” (2213).

Requiring employers to provide parental leave benefits is not only counterproductive economically; it’s also bankrupt morally because it avoids the underlying conflict: a fundamental disagreement regarding a vision for human flourishing. Instead, the only real hope for a pro-family and pro-life social order is through personal conversion – a “cultural transformation” according to St. John Paul, who goes on to describe how it comes about in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[T]he cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new life-style, consisting in making practical choices – at the personal, family, social and international level – on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over things (98).

In other words, it’s grievously short-sighted to rely on legislation and the state to address our society’s problems. “Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity,” the Catechism insists, “solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business…” (1941).

What’s called for is nothing less than a full-scale, no-holds-barred, up-to-date witness to the Gospel – a “New Evangelization,” you might say. Stop-gap measures like San Francisco’s new law simply don’t go far enough. 

Leave a comment


  1. MT

     /  April 13, 2016

    You say good things, especially regarding Distributions. I would caution against using the argument that paying decent wages for work necessarily means less work though. That’s a capitalist argument that presupposes labor is just a commodity to be minimized in whatever way possible in order to further the owner’s profit. It usually leaves out the dignity of the human person and favors what is profitable instead of what is just.


    • Mike

       /  April 15, 2016

      “I would caution against using the argument that paying decent wages for work necessarily means less work though. That’s a capitalist argument.”
      – Ah yes! It is ritually unclean!

      I note that your reason for avoiding the argument is not because it is wrong, but because you don’t like it.

      Like it or not, artificially inflating wages DOES result in the rise in the cost of labor, and means that there will be less of it (how much less remains to be seen). That’s not even a philosophical point. It comes from observing reality.

      The fact that you choose to avoid looking at reality because you don’t like what reality tells you about the effect of a policy speaks volumes about how Distributists think.


  2. Overall a great article. This one part throws me off, though (because I’m not sure I like distributism):

    “if you can buy something for three cents more at a mom and pop store, buy it there instead of the big box store – it’s that simple.”

    Do moms and pops not also work at big box stores? If I spend $3000 a year at target and save 5% because of the red card, can I not spend that $150 somewhere else (maybe a mom and pop?)


    • MT

       /  April 13, 2016

      Distributism is awesome because it calls for the joining of capital to labor. In other words, the workers own the means of production. Capitalism is a system where the means of production are mostly owned by the wealthy, and ends up with endless creation of monopoly and enslavement of the poor, basically the US today. But Distributism is not socialism, which is where the state owns the means of production. Distributism seeks to end the power of big business to form monopolies and bully everyone else out of buisness, but also retains the right to private property and keeps the inherit dignity of each human person that is ruined in socialism.

      The thing to realize about big box store is that they are a monopoly that drives all small local shops out of business. That’s because small shops can’t compete with a big store that is a one stop for many things and drives the cost of labor down by exploiting the poor in countries with non-existent labor laws. And then you have things like mass advertising that condition you to only shop at that big box store.


      • Mike

         /  April 14, 2016

        “the workers own the means of production.”
        – Here is one of the MAJOR downfalls of ‘Distributism’: How is that actually to be done? (Neither Chesterton nor Belloc ever really digs into the nitty, gritty specifics). SPECIFICALLY? Distributist fans’ answer to this is *crickets*. There are three ways: One, changing the hearts and minds of men so that all willingly share. Two, at the point of a government bayonet. Three, a blend of the first two.

        “endless creation of monopoly and enslavement of the poor, basically the US today.”
        – Another thing Distributists don’t seem to understand is that modern monopolies are NOT creatures of capitalism. They are in fact, creations of cronyism. They are enabled and protected by the very government Distrubutists think will take them apart.

        “Distributism seeks to end the power of big business to form monopolies and bully everyone else out of buisness”
        – What keeps competition out is collusion of business and big government. This is especially true with regard to regulations in the sectors of business that governments use. These regs are written by… you guessed it… the big businesses themselves and engineered so that when enforced by the government, will protect them from competition. And yet again, note the maddening, INTENTIONAL lack of any specific description of policy.

        “also retains the right to private property”
        You advocate for a massive, strong government that can seize whatever private property it likes from anyone, at any time, in the name of ‘redistributing the means of production’, and yet think this same government will magically respect someone’s private property rights?

        “The thing to realize about big box store is that they are a monopoly that drives all small local shops out of business.”
        – Yes, I’m sure the car you drive was made, from metal ingots all the way to finished paint, in the basement of a mom and pop shop, from local resources, right? I’m sure you didn’t buy one made by a *GASP* corporation, right? Same with all your clothes, phone, computer, lightbulbs, dinnerware…

        “The thing to realize about big box store is that they are a monopoly that drives all small local shops out of business.”
        – BS. If that were true then there would be zero stores of any kind in my town except several large box stores. Just because Wendy’s opens a franchise in your town doesn’t mean the local Italian restaurant is doomed. Examples are everywhere. Walmart has a ‘sporting goods’ section that also sells firearms and ammunition. And yet there are at least 7 locally owned gun stores that are thriving. If your statement reflected reality, none of them should exist.

        “drives the cost of labor down by exploiting the poor in countries with non-existent labor laws.”
        – BS again. Do some companies take advantage of quasi-slave labor? Yup. But there are lots that simply hire people because the wages are not inflated there. For example, my small company that I run hires some temp secretary work out to a VA in the Phillipines for a little over about $3 per hour. This is not even a starvation pay in the US, but is a good wage there, especially since she does it while her kids are in school and her husband at work and she never has to leave the house. But in the eyes of a Distributist, what I’m doing is an injustice…. for some reason. I’m guessing they frown upon it because she’s not white.

        Despite their whining to the contrary, there is actually very little difference between Distributism and outright Socialism. As another author put it, it distributism differs from socialism ‘mainly by being nondoctrinaire by being unclear.’

        I have yet to meet a die hard Distributism fan who has started, owns and operates a business that has to meet payroll (I do). They also seem to have a lot of fans who have a very idealized fantasy of what it’s like to be a farmer (also sadly mistaken. I grew up working my parents’ cattle farm.)

        I don’t know exactly what you do for a living, MT, but I get the distinct impression that you are either a student or a teacher of some kind, or perhaps work for a university or a charity. Your statements here read like a fan boy quoting lines verbatim from text he has spent far too long memorizing. Maybe I’m wrong, but your prose strikes me as someone who has never started and run a business, never had to meet payroll, never had to feel the punishing hammer of unjust government policy and taxation that somehow, in your ideology, will magically make everything ‘fair’.

        Signed: *someone who once though Distributism was a great idea too*


  3. Daniel O'Connor

     /  April 13, 2016

    Yes, it will be wonderful when laws need not address these problems because the Gospel has been fully preached, accepted, and *lived* everywhere.

    But the Church does not teach that we are to wait for that to happen or merely direct all efforts at only that goal while ignoring the duty of Law to defend and promote the Common Good in the meantime.

    For this particular question, see, for example, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church paragraph 301

    With this article, you’ve essentially called the Church’s Social Magisterium “morally bankrupt”


    • “With this article, you’ve essentially called the Church’s Social Magisterium “morally bankrupt””

      I’m sorry, but “just wage” is not the same thing as “living wage.” For some jobs, it would in fact be unjust to pay a living wage.

      Nor does “the right to social security connected with maternity” require government laws or enforcement of maternity leave in any given amount or degree. Social security is not the same as economic security or job protection.

      The very fact that the terms used are abstract and principled allows for a very large number of ways to implement that principle. That you have a given policy in mind when reading “COMPENDIUM OF THE SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH” does not mean that the Magisterium intended that policy to be the only acceptable one.

      IOW, men of good will can agree on the principle, but disagree on the proper and wisest policy.

      Making maternity leave longer is in my mind, however, a tacit admission of the need for a baby to be with its mother. That a mother is secure while tending her child is, by subsidiarity, primarily the job of her husband, their extended family, and their parish.


  4. Mark

     /  April 14, 2016

    Here are a few points I would like to make:
    1) Arguing that required maternity leave hurts the economy seems to make sense at first glance. Less work, same paycheck. Something has to give right? The problem here is that it is a short sighted argument. Think about the overwhelming positive effect that each human life has on the economy over an entire lifetime (I am not referring to the immeasurable dignity of human life here, just purely economic impact). A payed period of maternity leave vanishes in comparison. Policies like this have an overall positive economic impact on society, even if they cost something up front. Also consider that studies have suggested that workers are more productive overall when given time to recuperate on leave or vacation. (But do we really need a study to tell us that?)

    2) I agree that it is better to choose to do the right thing than to be compelled to do the right thing. On the other hand, that does not mean that government should never compel anyone or any company to do the right thing. This is what government almost always does when it passes laws. It compels us to not cheat on taxes, obey the speed limit, etc. Yes there are times when government goes too far in compelling persons (or companies) to do the right thing. This is not one of those times. Maternity leave is an example of something that should be required by law. Almost every other country in the world enjoys generous maternity (and/or paternity) leave laws.

    3) As you say, relying on legislation to fix our society’s problems is short sighted and the only real hope for society is through individual personal conversions; I agree. On the other hand, government is viewed as an authority by many (and as Catholics we believe its authority comes from God). As such, it is good when government, through legislation, teaches its citizens the right things.


    • I like your comment the best. This is unfortunately a very short-sighted article. I would venture to say the writer has only recently stumbled upon Distributism. Many of the distributists I know would be very happy with a law like this, even if it is a “stop gap”, it is still a great step.


  5. Charles

     /  April 14, 2016

    Ugh. Republican Catholic.


  6. Daniel O'Connor

     /  April 14, 2016

    If you want to utterly emasculate the Social Magisterium by insisting it is completely inapplicable to any actual concrete situation, John, then feel free. But please at least ask yourself if you’re being as loyal a son of the Church as you could be.


    • Mike

       /  April 15, 2016

      Uh oh! Look out! Daniel just slapped down the “I’m totally way more Catholic than YOU” argument! Everyone be VERY afraid!

      Daniel, what do you do for a living?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Xavier Abraham

     /  April 15, 2016

    I have been thinking of this topic for some time, and I too came to the conclusion that charity should not be coerced. Charity is the essence of Christian life, and a Christian without charity fails to be a Christian. However coercing an individual or business to give charity would only invite problems. Government may encourage people to give charity. God gives man complete freedom, and we are to respect the freedom each person has received from God.



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