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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Myth of Parental Rights

March 14, 2019

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. Virgil, The Aeneid (II, 49)

I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts. Also, in a less literary vein – a crap sandwich on the tastiest bread is still a crap sandwich.

When our opponents present us with something, whatever they call it and however they present it, we are right to be suspicious. And however prettily they dress up the outside, it’s vital that we look below the surface to determine whether their gift is in reality full of soldiers seeking to sack Troy or just a giant turd between two delightful slices of fresh sourdough bread.

How things are presented matters. But what is underneath that presentation is also critical, and very often we see charming presentation used as an attempt to sneak terrible content through. The opponents of legalized and safe abortion are masters of this technique. For years they have spoken of “Partial Birth Abortions,” choosing that language to demonize a rare and medically necessary procedure, Intact Dilation & Extraction.

There’s one comment from a law school professor of mine that has stayed with me vividly. When any student would mention “states’ rights,” he would launch on an irritated tirade. “States don’t have rights. Individuals have rights. Rights are things the state can’t do to you. States have powers.” And he was right. The term “states’ rights” was used to because rights are a good thing. Bad governments take away rights. And thereby, it could gloss over what “states’ rights” actually meant in the real world – the justification of viewing human beings as property and, later, the treatment of people, based solely on their race, as second-class citizens.

We are seeing the same use of presentation by our opponents now. The same attempt to dress up abusive and appalling policies in the language of rights and freedoms. It’s essential that we keep that in mind when we look at the world. When we campaign to remove exemptions from mandatory vaccination laws, as our media guru Paul Fidalgo spent yesterday in Maine doing, our opponents cry out for their “parental rights.” This is, of course, nonsense. There is no right to expose your child, or all the other children they will come in contact with at school, at the mall, or in the park, to potentially fatal, debilitating diseases unnecessarily, based solely on the ramblings of a fourth-rate actress online, and the self-serving, faked experiments of a struck-off doctor.

But the error here goes so much further than this. The entire notion of “parental rights” here is a flawed one that seeks to mask the reality – the abuse of children through their needless exposure to danger – in the language of freedom and rights. Let’s be clear on this. Being a parent does not give you rights. The rights that are talked of here are the rights of the child. It is the child that has the right to choose whether to be vaccinated and, thereby, likely protected from a whole range of diseases that have been the scourge of humanity, or not to be vaccinated and to roll the dice with their own safety.

Of course, in the overwhelming majority of cases, we recognize that children are not positioned to exercise their rights and make these choices. We therefore allow parents to act as a guardian of those rights and exercise them on behalf of the child. This is a very good thing. The parent is, in most situations, the one best placed to make such decisions. When deciding whether a child should study German or French, play football or swim, watch American Idol or go to bed at 8 pm, we default to the parents. Having government decide this would be not only impractical, it would also represent a form of tyranny that is incompatible with a free society. But that’s not saying the parents have the “right” to require those things of the child. Instead, the parents are exercising their best judgment in the service of their children. They are the caretaker of the child’s rights until that child is sufficiently developed to exercise them on their own behalf.

There have always been situations where we as a society have recognized parents are not the best placed to exercise the rights of the child. Regardless of parental wishes, children must be educated, may not work in coal mines, and cannot purchase alcohol or cigarettes. The child’s right to safety and education is paramount there. The parent not only does not have the right to send their child to work at the textile mill, they are not seen as the correct guardian of the child’s right to choose where (and when) to work.

Unfortunately, where we allow these rights of the child to be overridden, it is far too often in the name of a similar misnomer, the “religious freedom” of the parent. The Supreme Court, in Yoder v Wisconsin, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), allowed Amish parents to withdraw their children from school after the 8th grade. While laws regularly require lifesaving medical intervention against parents’ wishes, Idaho still exempts harm caused by parental reliance on faith-healing from child abuse laws. Parents are free to send their children to schools which deny them a scientific education, replacing it instead with religious dogma.

Where our opponents present their claims as defending “religious freedom” or “parental rights,” it is essential we look deeper. Who really owns the rights at issue? Children are not property. Their parents do not own them and do not own their rights. While it is good that we grant parents a broad range of discretion in how they exercise their children’s rights, the basic point must not be forgotten. They are the child’s rights, not the parent’s. No amount of linguistic games change that. Justifying vaccination exemptions as “parental rights” or “religious freedom” doesn’t alter what they are – stealth attempts to deny the right to a healthy future to our children.