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 allows parents 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 raising those 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.
Aquinas does not defend his premise regarding the moral relevance of parent-child biological bonds—in his day it was not necessary to do so—but I believe that the argument I presented above successfully fills in the missing links, defending the normativity of conjoined biological parenthood while also accounting for the authority of adoptive parents.
Aquinas’s “spiritual womb” metaphor profoundly expresses the connection among parental obligations, children’s needs, and parental authority. The integral gestation of a human person is a delicate and complex task. Just as premature birth involves grave risks to the health and survival of a child, premature puncturing of the child’s “spiritual womb” through intrusion into the parents’ sphere of authority also involves grave risks, because the child needs a secure space within which to grow at all levels.
The metaphor of the spiritual womb evokes the image of a protected zone within which the child can mature. The family is a sovereign community within its sphere, the boundaries of which are determined by reference to the common good which defines it; that is, the good of the personal relationships constituting that community, and of the individual members, especially the children—the members who lack sufficiently maturity to direct themselves toward their own personal fulfillment.
Parental Rights and Conscience
Because parents have the personal obligation to take care of their own children, no other person can take over their responsibility and corresponding authority. Even when parents delegate part of that authority to teachers, doctors, relatives, etc., they remain ultimately responsible. For that reason, parents have not only the responsibility, but also the right, to rear their children in accordance with their consciences.
When the state requires that children be educated in a way that parents consider harmful or inadequate, the state is preventing parents from fulfilling their obligations, thus violating their conscience rights and potentially damaging the children. It is assumed, of course, that the state considers itself to be acting for the benefit of the child, as in the case of the Romeikes and the Johanssons. But since parents have primary authority over their children, when there is disagreement between parents and state, the state should defer, except in clear and non-controversial cases of abuse, neglect, or threat to public order.
Of course, exactly what constitutes abuse or negligence can be a matter of debate. In general the presumption should favor the parents, particularly in cases of alleged psychological abuse (which can easily be and often is defined ideologically) and non-serious or non-urgent alleged physical abuse or neglect (recall Domenic Johansson’s untreated cavities). Excessively zealous intervention can result in great harm by breaking families apart unnecessarily, undermining parental authority and family intimacy, and separating children from caregivers with whom they have formed deep psychological bonds.
The state also has the right to enact minimal educational regulations with a view to the maintenance of public order. Such regulations assure that all children receive the education that they need to become law-abiding and productive citizens able to participate responsibly in the democratic process. However, the state can and should enact such regulations in a way that supports, rather than undermines, the primacy of parental educational authority. It thus should not impose a particular curriculum, require that all children attend a state-run school, or penalize parents (even financially, by requiring them to pay both school taxes and private school tuition or homeschooling costs) for not sending their children to a school operated by the state.
Conjugal Marriage and Parental Authority
The family, grounded in conjugal marriage, is a natural authority structure with a natural form (married biological parents and their children) that corresponds to unchanging features of human nature and deep human needs. The state didn’t create that structure, and it’s not from the state that parents get their authority.
If the state denies the naturalness and normativity of conjugal marriage by abolishing it in law and replacing it with a construct of its own making; and if, further, in doing so it declares that defending the naturalness and normativity of conjugal marriage constitutes bigotry, then the result will be the elimination in law of any privileged status for conjoined biological parenthood, since conjugal marriage is the only type of relationship within which conjoined biological parenthood occurs.
Because the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships will tend to undermine respect for the family as a pre-political authority structure with a certain autonomy in its internal affairs, the defense of parental authority and corresponding parental rights are now all the more crucial. For unless we defend parental rights in education and expand programs that make genuine school choice feasible even for those with limited economic means, within a generation the public schools will have succeeded in creating a citizenry largely bereft of any sense of the normativity of conjugal marriage.
These troubling trends are neither inevitable nor irreversible. The majority of people in our country—even the majority of those who claim to be in favor of same-sex marriage—would most likely be appalled if they were aware of the threats to parental rights that same-sex marriage brings in tow, particularly regarding the obstacles to passing on the conjugal ideal of marriage to the next generation. Thus articulating a strong, principled defense of parental rights and spreading awareness of threats to those rights are not only important for their own sake, but can also be a powerful way to illustrate the intimate link between the defense of conjugal marriage and the protection of our most cherished liberties.
Melissa Moschella is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. Her book, To Whom Do Children Belong? Parental Rights, Civic Education and Children’s Autonomy is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.