Parental-rights supporters span the full political spectrum. But the movement’s rhetoric on vaccinations, guns, and spanking, are more dangerous than they initially appear.
“The state doesn’t own your children, parents own the children.” —Senator Rand Paul
I disagree. Not with the first part: The state doesn’t own my kids. But neither do I, and neither does anyone else. Human beings are not for owning.
Senator Paul’s quote above came in the midst of the most recent dust-up over vaccination and whether or not school districts and other organizations should be able to impel parents to vaccinate their kids even when they have personal beliefs against it. It got less attention than his other statements on the matter, which alluded to the spurious idea that vaccines cause autism. But it’s at least as dangerous; without attracting much attention, the idea of parental ownership over children has begun to play a role in policy debates about issues like homeschooling, spanking, medical care, adoption and foster care, child abuse, sexuality, gun rights, and religion.
Proponents don’t usually frame it so starkly as “ownership”; the phrase they like to use is the much more innocuous-sounding “parental rights.” At first blush, it’s hard to imagine anything wrong with fighting for parents’ rights—until you start to read arguments that invoke parental rights against not only some paranoid version of “the state” but mostly against the idea of children having rights.
A particularly virulent strain of parental-rights rhetoric flows from those who fear a conspiracy by the United Nations to constrain how they raise their children: There is an entire movement devoted to opposing the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, a nonbinding set of goals that has been ratified by nearly 200 countries (only Somalia and the United States have not signed). The UNCRC text can be found here, and while most people read it as a document about commonly accepted goals and ideals, hard-core parental-rights advocates see the convention as a blueprint for One World Government that would intrude into each family’s home, criminalize spanking, grab guns, and force children to be exposed to the idea that sex and sexuality not only exist but are okay.
Among the most vocal opponents of the UNCRC is Michael P. Farris, who founded and heads both ParentalRights.org and the Home School Legal Defense Association. He also founded and heads Patrick Henry College, an institution of higher education serving Christian students, the vast majority of them home-schooled. It’s a very conservative environment politically, as this New Yorker article points out; it’s also a case study in how protecting the youth from sex ed doesn’t protect young women from sexual assault. Rather than adopt the UN’s guidelines for children’s rights, Farris is pushing for a Constitutional amendment enshrining the rights of parents to use their own judgment in child-rearing and discipline, so long as it doesn’t go too far: “This article shall not be construed to apply to a parental action or decision that would end life.”
Sometimes, though, the assertion of parental rights really does end in death. In Idaho, a legislative debate hinges on whether or not parents who belong to religious groups that eschew medical treatment should be allowed to deny care to their children. The current law there, very much on the side of parental rights over those of children, reads: “The practice of a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.” As a result, nobody has been prosecuted for the scores of pointless, easily preventable child deaths among members of anti-medicine sects like Followers of Christ and Church of the First Born. Arguing for change is Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc., a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of children to be treated medically, even if they had the bad luck to be born into faith-healing families.
It’s not just far-right religious zealots who invoke parental rights, though. I wasn’t surprised to disagree with Senator Paul about this—we disagree on pretty much everything except legalizing weed—but I was shocked to see, in the wake of the VaxWar2015, how many folks on the opposite end of the political spectrum seem to feel the same way about parental ownership of children. As with supersize families and Biblical names, parental rights is one of those places on the Venn diagram where crunchy lefties find themselves on the same side as uptight fundamentalists.
One recent cause célèbre for left-leaning parental rights advocates was the Connecticut teenager identified only as Cassandra C., who rejected chemotherapy treatment for a lymphoma that doctors said was highly treatable—yet invariably lethal if untreated. At issue was whether Cassandra, at 17, was mature enough to make a choice that would end her life, particularly since it seemed as if her opinions were highly influenced by her mother’s mistrust of standard medicine. The loudest voices raised in defense of Cassandra and her mother came from sites like NaturalNews.com, which described the state court’s eventual ruling that mandated Cassandra undergo chemo as “medical kidnapping,” a term popular among the community of folks who mistrust the CDC and CPS (child protective services) but put a lot of faith in water purifiers and vitamins (one of the site’s most popular articles is titled “Chemotherapy kills cancer patients faster than no treatment at all”).
When it comes to the HPV vaccines, which cancer doctors are hoping to rebrand as a “cancer vaccine,” parental-rights advocates both left and right come together in force. Religious conservatives say it’s unnecessary and promotes sex, while those on the left argue that it’s just another money-grubbing big-Pharma science experiment using our kids as guinea pigs. Real doctors, of course, point out that the vaccine is effective and doesn’t lead to any increase in sexual behavior.
We don’t own our kids; we care for them until they are able to leave us and lead their own lives. If we’re lucky, they will blossom into happy, productive, responsible adults who will contribute to the community we all share.
The idea that we are all part of an interconnected world, and that more locally, we raise our children in a community, is anathema to a certain strain of American individualism. These are the folks who value privacy over diversity, and tend to see the nuclear family as the most important (or only) unit of civilization. And these are the people who were infuriated by Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village and Melissa Harris Perry’s MSNBC ad in which she argued that the entire community has a stake in healthy and happy children.
I really believe parents—even those I vehemently disagree with—want what’s best for their children. And I do believe in some parental “rights.” I think we should have the right to screw up, the right to be imperfect, the right to question and doubt ourselves, the right to do the wrong thing sometimes. I also think we parents ought to have some concrete policy rights: paid maternity and paternity leave, paid sick days to care for ailing family members, financial assistance for adoption and IVF to make parenthood more available to diverse families, and quality affordable day care and preschool options. In all of these matters, what’s good for the parents is also good for the kids.
But when “parental rights” is used as a rallying cry for those who want to physically discipline their kids, deny them access to education and health care, or raise them according to bigoted, hateful worldviews, I have to object.
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