Children are the Property of Their Parents

Or so thinks Rand Paul. Or at least that what he said: “The state doesn’t own your children, parents own their children.” The context was recent debates about vaccinating children, and on that subject Paul’s comments are alarming enough. Hopefully though he doesn’t really believe children are literally the property of parents. I would guess he means parents have a unique or absolute right to make medical decisions about their children and that this trumps the state’s authority to make medical decisions about children.

Up to a point he is right about parents having a unique authority over their children, but the matter is more complicated than perhaps he realizes. The idea that children are the property of their parents fell out of favor a long time ago, but we are still working through the implications of this evolution. Ownership entails rights of disposal, the so the idea that parents own their children accounts for the nature and reach of parental authority. So one implication of rejecting the idea is that the nature and proper reach of parental authority is thrown into doubt. Current thinking on the subject has converged on at least a couple of important principles. One is that children are to be thought of and treated as unique persons, and this means they are entitled to equal moral consideration. That is, children should not be thought of or treated as less important simply because they are children. This does not mean children should be treated in the same ways as adults. Rather it means that the wellbeing and lives of children should not be considered less important than the wellbeing or lives of others, or that rights of children—whatever they may be—are less important than the rights of adults.

This principle has several consequences, three of which may seem controversial but shouldn’t be. One is that the interests of children sometimes trump those of parents. The second is that the state has a fundamental role in protecting children. The thirds is that the states’ interests in children can trump the interests of these children’s parents. These three results limit parental authority, but they should be accepted by anyone who thinks parents are not entitled parent in ways which harm their children, and that the state rightfully intervenes when parents do.

When it comes to vaccinating children, I think the upshot of all this is clear enough. Parents do not have an absolute right to make medical decisions for their children—that right runs out when parents’ decisions begin to inflict significant harm. Moreover, the state is within its rights to intervene when a parent’s medical decisions will harm a child. Not vaccinating children can put them at unnecessary and significant risk, and so a parent has no absolute right not to vaccinate children.

In this case, the result is overdetermined. The state surely has the authority to act to protect public health, and not-vaccinating is a risk there as well. The point would be that this is not in conflict with a parental right to make every medical decision for their child—parents can claim no such right to begin with. Pace Sen. Paul, parents don’t “own” kids in this case.

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