A few weeks ago, I attended a public viewing of a "parental rights" film entitled The Child: America's Battle for the Next Generation. Released by Watchman Cinema in 2010, The Child alleges that government intervention is supposedly threatening parents' freedom to make decisions regarding the upbringing of their children. With commentary from right-wing figures such as Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, The Child offered a glimpse into the beliefs of the parental rights movement.
The film begins with touching images of parents and children, describing children as hope, as the future, and as history in the making. Parents have a "divine appointment" to care for their children, the film tells viewers, and that the bond between parent and child is "inalienable." Ominous government powers, it claims, allegedly threaten to invade the family and challenge parental rights through legislation and social policies. Who ultimately determines the education, medical treatment, faith, and "lifestyle" of children?, the film asks.
The film cited the 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters case as a threshold that allegedly led to the doctrine of "parental rights" as high-level rights. Other cases, such as Troxel v. Granville, also received favorable attention. Interestingly, the film cited Parker v. Hurley -- in which several parents claimed that a Lexington, MA elementary school violated their constitutional rights by exposing children to books that contained depictions of families headed by same-sex couples -- in its discussion of the alleged erosion of parental rights. The government is determining what children learn, the film claimed, gradually robbing parents of authority over their children.
Predictably, The Child took aim abortion and other reproductive services, fuming that young girls are receiving abortions and STD treatment without their parents knowledge. This, the film claimed, will encourage deception and guilt among young people. A pediatrician commentator in the film thought it was odd that inner city health clinics can reportedly treat young people for STDs without their parents' knowledge, adding that she thought it dangerous to see children as somehow distinct from the family unit.
The film's discussion of reproductive issues was part of a larger discussion on "parental rights" and medical treatment, in which commentators lamented that physicians were allegedly usurping the role of parents, leaving parents out of the decision-making process in their children's medical care. For example, Farris claimed that HIPAA privacy protocols were being misused in a manner that interfered with parents' role in children's medical care. Another commentator shared an account of rushing her daughter to the hospital after the girl developed what they believed was a negative reaction to a TDP vaccination. In her account, doctors performed medical tests on her daughter without the her consent, leading to an argument with the hospital staff and the involvement of child protective services over a misunderstanding. Other interviewees shared accounts of child protective service intervention due to corporal punishment, which they deemed invasive.
Commentators framed these matters as unnecessary government interference with parental rights, describing the current state of affairs as "quasi-utopian", "statist", and an affront to the traditions and principles of America's founders.
The film's climax consisted of an attack on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as a supposedly dangerous document that would increase the power of the state and weaken parental rights. Depicted as a document with noble intentions that has now become problematic, the UNCRC was criticized for offering children the right to free association and free access to media. Of particular horror to commentators in The Child was the UNCRC's words on children's right to the highest attainable state of health, which the film associated with access to reproductive services, abortion, and mandatory sex education without parent's consent. Farris alleged that the UNCRC treaty bans parents from teaching children that Jesus is the only way to God because of its endorsement of "tolerance", which he equated with being unable to say that other groups are wrong. Other voices claimed that the UNCRC would be used to crack down on homeschooling, although why and how it would allegedly do so was unclear. The UNCRC, the film insisted, goes beyond basic human rights by supposedly promoting an ideological agenda contrary to American values.
The Child further demonized the UNCRC by claiming that it would undermine U.S. family law. Citing a Constitutional clause stating that any treaty the U.S. enters into becomes supreme law of the land, commentators fretted that the UNCRC would trump existing laws granting parents authority over their offspring. Using terms such as "judicial activism" and "legislative encroachments" to describe judges references to the UNCRC in family cases, the film depicted the UNCRC as dangerous to parental rights even without U.S. ratification.
To counter the alleged threat of UNCRC ratification, The Child proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define parents' liberty to make decisions about their offsprings' upbringing as a fundamental right. Such an amendment would ban federal and state governments from infringing upon parental rights without demonstrating that its interest in doing so is of the highest order.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As I watched The Child, what struck me was not the film's fear-colored mood or right-wing themes (although they were certainly prominent), but its alarm at a changing world. The film, and perhaps the parental rights movement in general, seem to be rooted in alarm that the surrounding culture is no longer holding right-wing ideas as normative. In a society of many religions, where LGBT people are slowly being recognized, where more and more people value reproductive freedom, and where America is increasing just one country in a larger global community, right-wing parents must be perturbed at so many threats to their belief system. In an attempt to pass on their ideas to their children, they seek to shut out ideas and policies that conflict with their belief system. Furthermore, in a society where the fundamental rights of individuals carry weight, the idea that parents have absolute authority over their children is fading, much to the chagrin of those who believe that such absolute authority is sacrosanct.
While the film's attack on the UNCRC disappointed me, it did not surprise me, given right-wing antipathy toward other human rights measures such as the CEDAW and a proposed bill against child marriage. As with these previous measures, some of the film's distaste for the UNCRC was rooted in the reproductive rights they believe it would bestow to minors. The abortion and family planning boogeyman has long been a rhetorical tool of the Religious Right, and seeing it used to foment hostility toward a human rights document is saddening but not surprising.
I suspect that the film maker's hostility toward the UNCRC was not ultimately about abortion or reproductive rights, but about the freedom of belief and association that the document would give minors. For the Religious Right to pass its ideas to the next generation, it must control the information they receive and the ideas they are exposed to. This goal can be seen in the movement's antipathy toward educational and cultural settings that expose children to ideas they dislike (i.e., LGBT issues, comprehensive sex education, evolution). A human rights document that enshrines children's freedom of religion, conscience, and thought -- that enshrines the right of minors to accept or reject the beliefs of fundamentalist Christian parents -- would be inimical to this agenda.
In conclusion, The Child: America's Battle for the Next Generation offers a glimpse into the fears, ideology, and strategies of the parental rights movement. In controversies over education, medical care, and human rights for minors, we must understand what various side perceive to be at stake if we are to truly understand these struggles.
To visit the website for The Child: America's Battle for the Next Generation, visit www[dot]thechilddocumentary[dot]com.