June 11, 2009
After one week on the lam, Colleen Hauser and her son, 13-year-old Daniel, returned home on Monday, May 25, 2009. They had fled the family's Minnesota farm when a judge ordered Daniel to undergo chemotherapy. Because Colleen Hauser returned voluntarily, she was not arrested. Brown County Family Services wanted Daniel to stay in the county's custody. But, the young boy was left in the care of his parents.
This emotionally charged incident, reported widely by the media, raises a very important issue. Who determines what is best for children? The State was concerned about the boy’s health and life. So were the parents. Who decides in such cases? When do parents lose their right to raise their children as they see fit? When should the State intervene? This is not a new question. It was raised many years ago, not in terms of a child’s health, but in terms of a child’s education.
In 1922, when prejudice and bigotry plagued Catholics, a law was passed in Oregon that effectively removed the right of parents to educate their children in Catholic schools. Parents were obliged to send their children to public schools. If they refused, they faced a fine of one hundred dollars and up to a month in jail. The law never used the word “Catholic.” But its intent was clear: to close all Catholic schools in an effort to keep children from “papist” views.
The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary challenged the law. In 1925, The Supreme Court heard the case. In
Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the court ruled that the State of Oregon could not constitutionally compel all school students to attend public schools. The court stated, “
The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations” (
Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 1925).
The court’s decision did more than address the ugly reality of anti-Catholicism. It safeguarded parental choice in the upbringing of their children. Parents have the right to bring up their children not only to be well-educated citizens, but also to be formed in their own religious tradition. The child can never be seen as “
the mere creature of the State.”
On many other occasions, the Supreme Court has affirmed parental rights. In
Troxel v. Granville,
the court stated, “
The liberty … of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.” (
530 U.S. 57, 2000) In
Parham v. J. R., the court also said,
The law's concept of the family rests on a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life's difficult decisions. More important, historically it has recognized that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children” (442 U.S. 584, 1979).
However, the future is not so secure. Parental rights are implied rights. There are no explicit provisions for them in the Constitution. Practically, this means that the courts can redefine their meaning as they see fit.
On March 31, 2009, a proposed constitutional amendment was introduced into Congress to safeguard parental rights in the face of government intrusion.
The Parental Rights Amendment seeks to guarantee that parents have the fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit. Thus, the family would be protected from the long arm of the government.
Should not parents be informed when prescription drugs are given to their children? Should children be able to receive contraception or have an abortion without the parents’ knowledge or consent? Should those who provide Medicaid benefits be prohibited from sharing “confidential” information about minors to their parents? Who has the right to decide what is or is not in the best interests of those not yet adults? These are not academic questions. Our legislators are constantly debating and voting on these very issues.
While the legislators discuss the issue, judges are already deciding it. In Washington State, a thirteen-year-old boy told school counselors that his parents made him go to church too often. With their advice, the boy brought the complaint to Child Protective Services. As a result, he was taken from his home and placed in foster care. Only later were the parents able to bring their son home when they agreed to the judge’s decision about the frequency of church attendance. Is this not an intrusion into the vital relationship of parent and child? (Jim Daly, “Should Uncle Sam Raise Your Children,” April 8, 2009)
One impetus to take a good look at parental rights comes from
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This international treaty grants substantive rights to all children and young people. The treaty’s desire to insure access to education and health care is good. The treaty’s goal of helping young people develop their abilities and talents to the fullest potential is laudable. But how does the authority of the parent enter in making these decisions for the good of the child?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child would give the UN social services system the power to override parents’ choices and mandate what it judged was in the best interest of the child. Under the terms of UNCRC, no longer could the biblical proverb
“Spare the rod, spoil the child” (cf. Proverbs 13:24) claim legal support. A ban on physical punishment is certainly not a bad thing. But the apparently harmless provision that children should be taught in a religiously tolerant manner could lead to a loss of liberty.
According to Catholic teaching, Jesus is the complete and definitive revelation of God. “He is … the one Savior of the world. ‘Before the world began, God predestined us …to be his adopted children in Christ…and to bring everything together under Christ as head, everything in heaven and everything on earth.’ (Eph 1: 5. 10) There is only one plan for salvation.” (
Evangelization: Grace and Vocation, May 11, 2008, 53) Would the right for children to be taught in a religiously tolerant manner, then, lead some to say this teaching violates the treaty? The American Bar Association supports the treaty and has already offered the opinion that teaching children that Jesus is the only way to God goes against the spirit of the UNCRC.
In Article 3 of the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) affirms that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. Thus, policies affecting children at all levels of society and government should have the child’s best interest as the primary concern.” Would the language of
“best interests of the child”
become the means for the State to replace the parents’ authority over their own children?
If the State substitutes the authority of the parents, children eventually will have the right to reproductive services and abortions without parental consent. Parents would no longer be able to opt out of sex education as given in public schools.
The parent-child relationship is vital for society. Both parents and State have a stake in the welfare of children. Who would deny the right of the State to intervene when the life of the child is endangered or the child is suffering abuse? But who would want the government to intrude where it does not belong? Eventually family values would be erased from our society. Then, all of us would be impoverished.