Parental Rights and Duties

This is a puzzler. The story begins as follows:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A couple serving probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor could face new charges now that another son has died.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith healing. They lost their 8-month-old son, Brandon, last week after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that a decision on charges will be made after they get the results of an autopsy.

John Locke was the champion of liberal thought who almost single-handedly formed the warp and woof of Madison and Jefferson’s thinking about the place of government in the lives of its citizens. It is generally known that they followed Locke in thinking that that government is best that governs least. I do not follow them in this libertarian thinking, because things have become so complicated these days and we have learned that when government doesn’t step in — as in the case of large corporations that would pollute the air and water — the citizens are the ones who suffer. In fact, citizens have little recourse as individuals in attempting to take on large, wealthy corporations that are impacting their lives in so many ways.

But at the same time, I do agree with Locke who also noted that parents are responsible for their children until they reach “the age of reason,” as Locke put it. That was never defined, but I assume he meant the age when they can take responsibility for their own lives. We have decided it is 18 or 21 — depending on what sort of responsibility we are talking about. But while the age is somewhat arbitrary the principle is clear: parents are responsible for their children until we can presume the children themselves can act responsibly. The parents in this case are devout Christians who distrust medical science and seem convinced that prayer is sufficient to heal their sick children. I don’t happen to agree with them, and there are many arguments against this strict position.

But I must admit I have a problem with officials of the state of Pennsylvania stepping in and telling these people they cannot raise their children as they see fit. This is a classic case of paternalism and the man who argued most persuasively against that position was John Stuart Mill in the late nineteenth century. He was developing ideas he found in Locke, ideas that focus on the unwarranted spread of civil influence into the private lives of individuals who ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes. Mill was convinced that the only time the state had a right to interfere in the lives of the citizens is when they pose a real and present threat to one another: when it steps in to prevent harm to a citizen.

In the case of young children who are the responsibility of their parents, it seems to me that the state has firm grounds for stepping in between parents and children if, and only if, the parents are clearly threatening the lives of the children — when they physically abuse them, for example. The case of parents who refuse medical attention because they believe in the efficacy of prayer assuredly does not come under this rubric. Failure to seek medical attention for their sick children seems to me to be one of the things best left to their judgment, whether or not we agree with that judgment. In this case it is not only paternalistic it is a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees religious freedom. Whether we like it or not (and I confess I do not like it) these parents are guaranteed the right to raise their children in accordance with their deeply held religious convictions. The couple has seven children who are now in foster care and have been described as “distraught” over the death of their child; nonetheless, prosecutors seek to have the couple jailed since they are regarded as a “threat to their children.” What possible grounds could the state of Pennsylvania have for either taking the children from their parents of prosecuting the parents as criminals?


13 thoughts on “Parental Rights and Duties

  1. Hugh, you are right in that there are some delicate First Amendment rights to consider here. But I disagree with your final conclusion that the state should not step in, or charge the parents. Depriving the child of medical care — no matter how much the parents believe in the power of prayer — is equivalent to child abuse, to locking a kid in a basement, etc. In this day and age when the effects of medical care are widely known and easily accessible, the crime would probably be negligent homicide. The parents have the right to practice their religion and refuse medical care for themselves, but do they really have that right to lead their child to death through their religious practices? I don’t think so — at some point, if one person’s religious beliefs intrude on the health or safety of another (even their own child), it is no longer a matter of protecting the parents’ First Amendment rights (as essential as they may be), but saving the life of another human. If someone were to practice a form of religion that called for child sacrifice — something Incan or Mayan or even like Jonestown, say — we surely would not permit them to burn their kid on a pyre or drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

    The state has a deep obligation to look out for any child’s welfare, and there is much precedence to permit it. There are policies, positions in place within the legal system that do this, even when a child has both parents. Guardians ad litem can be assigned by a judge to represent the kid in court during custody proceedings, during cases where parents are accused of crimes, etc. Social services obviously has many methods of interceding on a child’s behalf when the kid’s health, education, etc., are being affected.

    The parents should not lose their First Amendment rights to practice their religion. But they should lose their rights to be parents. They can continue to practice their religion in prison, but their kids should be allowed to at least live long enough to reach that “age of reason” so they can decide for themselves if they want to follow their parents’ religion. This kid never had the chance. That is most definitely a crime.

    • I thought of the example of child sacrifice as a religious right. But that’s not a good analogy. These people sincerely believe that prayer can suffice and the First Amendment, and I read it, protects that right. You and I may not agree with it, but relying on prayer is not like throwing your child into a volcano or a blood sacrifice. I had a good childhood friend whose parents were Christian Scientists and he died of appendicitis. I thought that was wrong. I still do, but I can’t convince myself that the state can come in and take the parents’ children away or prosecute them for homicide. I don’t care what the precedents are. That’s a bit like saying (as they like to say in New England) but that’s what we’ve always done! Thanks for the good comment, though. It is a perplexing issue, as I said!


      • it’s always with great expectations that i open the door and peer inside; having been robbed before (big problem in Costa Rica) i am always pleased to see that everything is just how i left it!
        adding ‘river’ to the phrase changes the syntax and makes it a bit too much of aa greeting. i’ll be going to town today, so i will try out your suggestion and see how that works!

  2. Hugh, thought provoking post. I have two sets of comments – one religious and one legal. On the latter, I agree with Dana. In my view, this akin to child endangerment, such as leaving a child in a hot car on a hot day. If there is danger, then the government has the right to step as they are unfit parents. On the former, I think parents like this are arrogant. Why? How do they know how God’s miracle will manifest itself. The doctors themselves may be the miracle they have been praying for. There is an old joke that applies to a man who prays to win the lottery over and over and then laments to God why haven’t you answered my prayer. The clouds part and God’s speaks – “It would help if you bought a ticket.” Thanks for sharing, BTG

  3. You are a brave man – another sensitive issue. When I read that the other children were in foster care, for me, this became an illogical sequence. If the problem is that the parents do not seek medical care for ill children, and the others are well and otherwise sufficiently cared for, then it seems a major over-step to remove those other children from the parents. I understand that the gov may have over-arching rules, but why create havoc when there is none?

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