Is parenting a right?

I’ve been struggling with this topic for a few days, since I read the interview with Rickie Solinger on the Mothers Movement Online website. I’m going to touch on some issues that are highly sensitive, and I know there’s a risk of hurting or angering people, but I think the question is too important to ignore in the interest of politeness.

Solinger is the author of a book called Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States. In her interview, she makes a convincing argument that the rhetoric of "choice" gives little protection to poor women, who are often criticized for their choice to have children when they do not have the financial resources to support them. Thus:

"Making “good choices” about whether or when to become a mother— a concept, Solinger notes, that “evokes women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplace”— is an opportunity reserved for women with the right combination of social and economic resources. Women without some or all of these assets— a degree of maturity, a good education and/or marketable job skills, work that pays a living wage, a husband or another dependable source of supplemental income— can only make “bad” choices by expressing their sexuality and fertility."

Moreover, the focus on choice provides an argument against public intervention in everything from child care, to college costs, to supporting part-time employment; if everyone is entitled to make their own choices, why should society rescue some people from the consequences of those choices?

Solinger therefore argues that "women must have the right to reproduce in order to be full persons accorded full rights of self-determination." Recognizing such a right would have lots of repercussions. Solinger argues that it would encompass "the right to raise one’s child with access to the basic elements of a dignified life, such as decent food, shelter, physical safety, health care, and education." It would also presumably guarantee access to fertility treatments.

I just don’t think I’m willing to go that far. I have two main objections to the idea of an inherent right to parent:

First, I think Solinger comes dangerously close to suggesting that those who are physically unable to reproduce, or who choose not to, are less than full persons.

Second, and more importantly, I think viewing parenting as a right has the effect of treating children as a means to an end. I reject the notion that people who aren’t willing or able to care for their children have a "right" to have them anyway. And I’m very uncomfortable with some of the surrogacy and donated-egg arrangements that people are using to have children these days, because it seems like the parents are putting their own desire to have some biological relationship with their child ahead of the child’s best interest. And as Being Daddy wrote in his wonderful Unhip Parent’s Manifesto: "Having a baby is not about you. Get over it."

(I recognize that it’s easy for me to say this, not having had any fertility issues. I’m willing to listen to your counterarguments. And I’m not arguing that my queasiness is a basis for making public policy.)

5 Responses to “Is parenting a right?”

  1. Suzanne Says:

    No counterarguments here, just a thank-you for yet another thought-provoking post. As usual, you’ve left me with much to mull over.

  2. cul Says:

    I am of the opinion that there are certain aspects of being human that transcend the idea of “rights” and that do not fall under the influence or purview of social doctrine or politic; being gay is one and so is the ability to reproduce.

  3. amy Says:

    The problem with using the ability to reproduce as a prerequisite for full personhood for women, I think, is not that it suggests “that those who are physically unable to reproduce, or who choose not to, are less than full persons.” I think the problem is that it suggests that _women_ who don’t reproduce are less than full persons, predicating women’s value, once again, on childbearing. I don’t hear any mention of the fellas in this line of thought, though to be fair, I’m going by your excerpts.
    I don’t think reproduction is a right, btw, any more than the ability to solve matrices is a right. As for the points about poor women being bad parents, I don’t think we can even begin to talk about this until abortion is subsidized and made more accessible for them. Having been very poor for longer than I like to think about, I understand that even independent, self-esteeming, well-educated, gratification-delaying people get worn down and tormented by the way our society deals with poor people, and there are times you’ll do awfully stupid things for a warm touch and a kind word. It’s a shocking thing. So it’s not surprising that poor women who spent their whole girlhoods being beaten down and told not to hope or plan get pregnant. I think more people who try to punish others out of poverty — excuse me, “incent” — should have to have a good long taste of it first.

  4. Jen Says:

    Jungled up in here somewhere is what I perceive as a growing sentiment in this country that children “belong” to their parents, and that those parents should be responsible for all costs and burdens associated with children. The idea that we as a species depend upon further generations is totally lost. I swear you’d get more traction with lots of Americans these days by discussing children as R&D projects.

  5. Katie Says:

    It just isn’t society that makes women unable to have children feel like less of a woman, it’s those who suffer from infertility. Then again, maybe it’s society that shaped my feelings on this issue. I never had any choice in the matter of reproduction – my body made that choice for me.

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