Do Parents Have Rights?

In recent weeks the world has been torn and heartbroken over the suffering of Charlie Gard and his parents in England. There’s little need to review the basics, but Charlie was a little boy with a congenital anomaly that offered little hope for a long and quality life. His parents, however, felt that Charlie could benefit from experimental treatment and were able to raise the money to take Charlie to the United States for the treatment. The state courts, however, following the advise of the doctors at Charlie’s hospital, refused to allow the parents to take Charlie anywhere, in spite of the fact that they had raised the money and that doctors in the U. S. were willing to give it a go with the experimental therapy. Under pressure, the courts did allow a doctor from the U. S. to assess Charlie, and that doctor advised that it was too late, that Charlie’s condition had progressed too far, and that the experimental therapy would not help. The parents conceded their hope for Charlie and allowed him to die in peace, but still complained that the hospital had waited too long to consider the experimental therapy.

Ian Kennedy, emeritus professor of health, law, ethics, and policy, wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian, expressing support for the court system that assumed precedence over Charlie’s parents in determining Charlie’s fate. Mr. Kennedy argued that if reason, principle and rules were to win out, then we must analyse how to proceed in these difficult cases. He wrote:

“These are the steps. The first is to recognise that children do not belong to their parents. Second, when a claim is made that parents have rights over their children, it is important to step back and examine the language used. We need to remind ourselves that parents do not have rights regarding their children, they only have duties, the principal duty being to act in their children’s best interests. This has been part of the fabric of our law and our society for a long time. Third, if we are concerned with the language of rights, it is, of course, children who have rights; any rights that parents have exist only to protect their children’s rights.”

Beside openly contradicting himself by insisting that parents have no rights, then speaking of “any rights that parents have,” Mr. Kennedy is simply incorrect. He seems to confuse the fact that parental rights are not absolute with the notion that parental rights don’t exist at all. No right is absolute. Rights are limited according to our place in the human community. As one old Jesuit professor told our class, “Your right to swing your arms through the air ends where my nose begins.” But, the fact that rights are limited, or that they can even be surrendered, does not mean that they don’t exist at all. Parental rights exist, even if they are not absolute, even if they are limited. I have the right to choose what I am convinced is the best education for my child. But, my right to do so doesn’t mean I have the right to choose no education at all for my child. I have the right to choose what my child will wear and eat, but not that my child will go naked and starve. The state has the responsibility, when necessary, to move in and presume custody over children whose parents are neglecting their genuine responsibilities. But, this doesn’t mean that our children belong to the state. It means that we, as individuals, have some responsibility to the human community, and that the human community has some responsibility to each individual. There is a necessary social nature to human life. We don’t exist just as individuals. We exist as individuals within a larger human community. Each moral dilemma comes down, at heart, to the need to strike the balance between the intrinsic dignity of the individual and the social nature of what it means to be human. Mr. Kennedy would tip that balance too far to the social nature of what it means to be human, degrading the intrinsic dignity of the human person, in this case on the matter of the rights of parents regarding their children. I don’t pretend any familiarity with English law, so he may be correct in saying that English law does not recognize the rights of parents. But, this would represent a problem with English law, not with the natural rights of parents regarding their children.

In Charlie Gard’s case, the problem was not that the state was attempting to suppress ordinary treatments for Charlie, or that the state wanted Charlie to die. It was generally agreed that he had little hope for a long and quality life. The problem with Charlie’s case is that the state was presuming to suppress the rights of parents when there was no reasonable cause for doing so. There was no history of abuse or neglect on the part of Charlie’s parents. There was no desire on their part that he continue suffering. They only wanted what they were convinced was best for their child, to attempt an experimental therapy that they believed might extend both the length and quality of his life, and they had the resources to provide that to their son. It may be that English law does not recognize the rights of parents even when there is no evidence of abuse or neglect. But, this is absurd. Does the state have the right to decide what a child will eat for breakfast on any given day? Does the state have the right to decide what a child will wear? Does the state have the right to decide where a child must attend school, or what subjects he or she must study, or what surgeries he must undergo in light of a medical condition he or she has, or what music to which the child may listen, or books he or she may read, or programs and movies he or she may watch? Is the state going to come in and take a child away from his or her parents because they refused to allow their child to watch “The Walking Dead”? Is the state going to come in and take a child away because the parents refuse to allow her to date, or require that he attend church services? Many have heard of the case in Canada where a 12-year-old daughter sued her father for his punishing her for disobeying him by getting on the internet and posting inappropriate pictures of herself. The father punished the child by not allowing her to attend a school trip. The child sued, and the courts took the case and ruled in favor of the girl!

There is a great deal of interest here in the United States for limiting the rights of parents regarding their children.

It seems that these theories of parental rights or, rather, the non-existence of parental rights, are based on the notion that children have legitimate needs and desires and that parents are generally hostile to the legitimate needs and desires of their children, so the state must move in and protect children from their generally hostile parents. In other words, because some parents are mean or even dangerous, the state must presume ultimate control over all children. Rather than approaching the matter on the assumption that most parents want to do right by their children and have their children’s best interest in mind, while some children are in legitimate need of being rescued from horrible homes, these theories approach the matter on the assumption that most parents are mean or dangerous and that the state must protect children from them. If, on the other hand, some parents want to do right by their children, that is all well and good, but the state still has the upper hand in determining what’s right for their children. Rather than the state having to prove grounds for moving in on the rights of parents when parents are abusive or negligent, these theories demand that it is the parents who must prove their good intentions and behaviors to the state in order to dissuade the state from assuming authority over their children.

How far does the power of the state extend over the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit? How much power over our children are we parents willing to give to the state? How much power over our children is the state determined to grab?

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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