To Whom Do Children Belong? A Defense of Parental Authority
by Melissa Moschella
Parents have unique authority over their children because they bear non-transferable obligations toward their children. The state must respect the right of parents to fulfill their duties toward their children. The second in a two-part series.
Yesterday I began to outline how the legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples undermines the natural rights of parents. If, as the constructivist view of the family defended in Obergefell implies, children “belong” to the state rather than parents, so that the state merely allowsparents to raise their children, then it is hard to see what is wrong with the cases of paternalistic state intrusion into the family that I described. So, then, why do parents have primary and original authority over their children?
Parental authority is fundamentally grounded in parental obligations, for as everyone recognizes, caring for children requires making decisions on their behalf. Therefore, showing that parents have primary, pre-political childrearing authority requires showing (1) that the obligations of parents to their children are stronger and more direct than the obligations of the larger political community, and (2) that the obligations of parents to their children are in no way derived from the obligations of the larger community, but rather are original, based on the very nature of the parent-child relationship.
Personal Relationships and Non-Transferable Obligations
Our personal relationships, insofar as they give rise to special responsibilities to facilitate and promote the well-being of others, impose non-transferable obligations on us. This is because personal relationships create personal dependencies.
If I have a personal relationship with someone, then that particular person will have needs that only I can meet, and vice versa. The obligation is non-transferable precisely because I am uniquely able to meet it. I may have more serious competing obligations that excuse me from fulfilling it, but it nevertheless can’t be fulfilled by anyone else. For example, if a husband promises to take his wife out for a romantic dinner one evening, and an unforeseen emergency arises at work requiring him to stay late, he may be excused from keeping his promise, but no one else can fulfill that obligation in his stead.
I’ve argued in the past that the uniqueness of the biological parent-child relationship can be understood in this light. Initially—that is, at conception—the child’s biological parents are the people with whom that child has the closest personal relationship, the closest personal dependencies. They are, for that reason, the ones with the primary responsibility to take care of that child and therefore the ones with the primary authority to do so (unless they are incompetent to exercise that authority).
The special responsibility that biological parents have for their children is non-transferable because only biological parents can give to their children the benefit of their parental love. The relationship between children and their biological parents is intimate, permanent, and identity-constituting. It defines the biological aspect of the child’s identity—for if the child had different biological parents, he would not be the same person; indeed he would not exist at all. Children do not miss being loved by those with whom they have no intimate relationship; the unique, irreplaceable intimacy of the parent-child relationship manifests itself in the fact that a child can miss the specific love and care of an absent biological parent, even when he is well-loved by (say) adoptive parents.
This line of reasoning is borne out in studies of those conceived through reproductive technologies with “donor” sperm. My Daddy’s Name is Donor, one of the largest such studies conducted thus far, found that donor-conceived adults are more confused about their identity and more isolated from their families than those raised by biological or adoptive parents. They see the absence of knowledge about their biological fathers as an impediment to understanding their own identities fully.
Nearly two thirds of study participants agreed with the statement: “My sperm donor is half of who I am.” And on objective outcomes like delinquency and substance abuse they fared worse than their peers raised by biological parents or adoptive parents. Those raised by biological parents did the best of all, echoing the conclusions of many studies that the gold standard for children’s well-being is to be raised by married biological parents.
What about adoptive parents? Usually, biological parents cannot fulfill their non-transferable obligation to love their children except by actually raisingthose children. Sometimes, however, the biological parents reasonably judge that the best way to promote the child’s well-being is to arrange for him or her to be raised by others who are more competent—ideally, in a household that is itself an intact biological family with a married mother and father.
In a case of this sort, children can still know themselves to be loved by their biological parents, even without having been raised by them. Indeed, research indicates that one of the most important benefits of “open adoption” is that it enables children to discover that their biological parents do love them, that the decision to give them up for adoption was motivated precisely by love rather than rejection or indifference.
In the normal case, the biological relationship—an intimate, permanent, and (for the child) identity-defining personal relationship—is what initially grounds the obligation to love and care for a child (along with the corresponding parental authority). For adoptive parents, obligation (and the corresponding authority) starts with the commitment they make to step in where biological parents can’t, but once they have established an intimate relationship with the child, it is the existence of that relationship—and the child’s ensuing dependency on them—that grounds their obligation to continue parenting, and their authority over their children. While the ideal is for the biological, psychological and moral aspects of parenthood to be unified, adoptive parents are true parents psychologically and morally, and thus more fully parents than those whose parenthood is merely biological.
The Spiritual Womb of the Family
So parents—biological or adoptive—are those who have the strongest and most direct obligation to care for their children, and this obligation is the basis of their authority over those children. The scope and content of this authority, as against the state’s, remains to be established.
The gestation of a human being is a long process that requires not only bringing the child to a state of relative physical independence, but also to a state of relative moral, psychological, and intellectual independence. And just as a mother’s womb is the ideal place for physical and psychological gestation during the first nine months of life, so the natural family is the ideal place to complete that gestation, extending it morally and intellectually.
Because human beings are a unity of body and soul, there is a complex interrelation among the various levels of human development, such that what occurs at one level prepares for and is influenced by what occurs at other levels. The physical proximity of parents to their children and their attentiveness to their children’s needs gives rise to psychological bonds, which in turn foster the confidence and affection that facilitate moral and intellectual education—in part because affection for parents is a key source of motivation for obedience to parents’ directives, helping children to overcome the tyranny of their passions and become capable of practical reasoning at a distinctively human level; and in part because that confidence grounds a sense of security that permits children to develop their independence with the knowledge that someone will be there to pick them up when they fall, literally or metaphorically.
When addressing the rights and obligations of parents in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas speaks of a child as in some sense “a part” of its parents and as “enfolded in the care of its parents,” first physically in the mother’s womb, and then in the “spiritual womb” of the family. Aquinas’s view is reminiscent of Aristotle’s claim in the Nicomachean Ethics that “parents love their children as being a part of themselves, and children their parents as being something originating from them,” as well as his basic understanding of the conjugal union, and the family that is built upon it, as a “natural community” (literally, “community corresponding to nature”).
On this basis, Aquinas argues that “it would be contrary to natural justice, if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parents’ custody, or anything done it against its parents’ wish.” He makes this claim in response to a controversial question of his day regarding whether the children of Jews and other non-Christians should be baptized against their parents’ will. Although he does not offer much further explanation, his position seems to be based on an appreciation of the moral relevance of the biological connection between parents and children. According to Aquinas, these biological connections are the basis of “parents’ duty to look after the salvation of their children,” as the analogy between the physical womb and the spiritual womb suggests.