Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Parent Licence.

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
— Winston Churchill.
The best argument against parenthood as some sort of natural right is a five minute conversation with the average parent.

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Does a potential parent have the right to bear and raise a child? So many people would simply answer yes without a second thought. Religion invokes God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply, or similar, and some consider it their duty to have many children — it comes as no surprise that an ideology which creates more adherents will be more resilient than one which allows for such things as abortion and contraception. Mainstream liberal thought arrives at the same conclusion: we invoke free will and the right to do as one wishes with one’s own body, such as produce a child — this is, after all, part of the basis for the pro-choice movement.

That some people need to have the right to have children is obvious if we want our species to survive. But there are plenty of such necessary rights that we assign not to everyone but only to those who have shown that they will be competent and responsible in using them. There's a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy claiming that because to be a successful parent requires certain knowledge and skills, and because abuse of one's rôle as a parent can have extremely harmful consequences, we should implement a parent licensing scheme analogous to driving licences or medical qualifications. And of course, we don't see having a child as a simple human right — it's already conditional on finding a willing partner and/or being able to afford fertility or adoption services, many of which impose minimum competency standards of their own. This last is in itself a solid argument — we require people to jump through hoops to adopt kids, but if inserting tab A into slot B works for them we leave them alone.

There are compelling arguments for parenthood-as-privilege from the rights of children. Bearing in mind that children have not had legal rights for any longer than women, the relative novelty of these arguments and the obvious interests of potential parents in maintaining the status quo explains why they have not been taken as seriously as they should be. Much as we need to reproduce in order for our species to survive (this much is tautological), there are certain rights we need to accord our children if we want the sort of society we favour to survive; these are the rights the fulfilment of which enables the child to become a properly functioning, responsible individuals.

Now, I'm not advocating unreasonably high standards. If we managed to get this far largely without legal regulation of parenthood it's fairly obvious that we can survive as a society even if some of us are abused or neglected as children. On the other hand, evolution tends to weed out those who are damaged in this manner — would it not be better for them not to suffer in the first place? The main focus of the sort of system I envision would be more on helping potential parents prepare than on telling them to go and get their tubes tied; not so that only competent people reproduce, but so that people (in general) can become competent to reproduce. And some forms of child abuse can be prevented in other ways. Take religious indoctrination. This would be better prevented by banning religion from schools, and treating religion like porn or drugs and restricting religious material and venues to adults, than by banning religious people from having children. We can provide hearty school lunches, charged to the parents' tax bill, to counter Ramadan starvation; we can provide counselling services to counter Catholic guilt-mongering, and comprehensive and compulsory health education to counter Christian sex-denialism; and we can strip doctors of their licences (and charge them with sexual assault) if they perform circumcisions.

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