Monday, 28 March 2011
The limits of parental rights
In America and also increasingly in this country, the debate about home education causes people to raise the question of parents' rights, as opposed to the rights of the state. It is suggested that the state is now trying to take over the role of parent and interfere in family life a little too much. I don't personally buy this; society has always had a stake in the welfare of children. Those arguing against state interference in their 'right' to home educate, often bring up other supposed rights that the state is trying to deprive them of in relation to their children. In the USA, this might be the right to allow one's children to use firearms; in this country, it is more likely to be the right not to vaccinate one's children. All these ideas were thrashed out legally in this country well over a century ago and it might be interesting to examine one of the seminal cases in this field of law; R v Downes 1875 1 QBD 25. Not far from where I live in Essex, a Christian sect was founded who called themselves the Peculiar People. Peculiar in this sense means not odd, by special. The expression is taken from the Bible ( Deut 14:2, Ps 135:4, 1 Pet 2:9 and so on). This sect was composed of ordinary working men and women who simply took the Bible as their guide for day to day living. They rejected all medical help, relying instead upon the words of scripture found in the Epistle of James, chapter 5, verses fourteen and fifteen; Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of the faithful shall save the sick. In 1874, one family of Peculiar People tried this with their two year-old child. He was wasting away from an illness and they loved him very much. There was no question of neglect; they took the best possible care of the child and did everything short of calling a doctor. Instead, they invited the elders of their church to pray over the sick child. When the child died, the father was charged with and convicted of manslaughter. It was held by the courts that the conscience of parents and their rights do not take precedence over the law, nor can they override what a normal person would do in similar circumstances. R v Downes found its way right up to the House of Lords and is still a binding precedent to this day. I have sometimes wondered what the legal implications of this case are for those parents who refuse to take their children to clinics to be vaccinated. If their children contracted measles and died; would they too be liable to a charge of manslaughter? It is an interesting point. The principle laid down in R v Downes is also important for home educating parents generally. There are no exemptions in law for parents who wish to pursue strange lifestyles founded upon weird beliefs. Such parents are expected not only to follow the same letter of the law as everybody else, but also to bear in mind what a right-thinking person would see as being good for their child. After all, looking again at R v Downes, there is no specific law which says that one must call the doctor if one's child is ill. We are expected to use common sense about this and abide by the consequences if our decision is wrong. This applies equally to calling a doctor or sending a kid to school. It is not possible to withdraw from society and ignore what everybody else thinks about education and medicine! This idea has far-reaching implications for those who follow unconventional lifestyles, especially if this lifestyle might ultimately cause harm to a child.