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If we attempt to answer what the parent really is, we are likely to touch upon the assumptions about the grounds, on which the right to parent a child is based. It has been commonly accepted in most societies that parenthood equals biological parenthood (although adoptive parents also have an unquestionable right to performing their parental role) (Prout 2016). However, with the development of liberal views on the family institution, many theorists have rejected the idea that children “belong” to their biological parents. The latter are entitled to exercise their rights over them. The importance of children’s best interests and the role of the state are gaining momentum. Moreover, the issue has become pressing because of the increasing number of divorces (that undermine the right of a child to have proper care) and same-sex marriages (in which couples are struggling to receive an opportunity to adopt children). The new, expanded vision of parenting raises a question, what moral, social, and individual qualities one must possess to be able to raise a child regardless of the genetic connection (Archard 2014). Moreover, should children have the right to be freed from their parents’ custody if they do not seem capable of providing proper upbringing?
It is an absolute moral right of children to be parented by their biological father and mother if they can sustain their child’s well-being. It has been proven by sociological research that children tend to develop better when they are brought up by their birth parents and therefore have better chances of succeeding in their studies and future career while being more self-confident, ambitious, and psychologically balanced (Parke & Ladd 2016). Still, it is not always the case. In particular situations, it is much more beneficial for the child to be brought up by other people or organizations (Prout 2016).
Nevertheless, this fact does not allow claiming that biological parents are fully interchangeable with any other competent caregiver (Berk & Meyers). Thus, the essay at hand is going to argue that, although children have the right to be parented by the best available parent who is willing to do so, their fundamental interest is to be raised by their biological parents except for cases of their genuine and irreparable incompetence. To prove this point, the paper is structurally divided into the sections presenting supporting and opposing arguments:
- Biological philosophy of parenting (in which the idea of genetic right for parenthood is critically investigated);
- The concept of child’s best interests (which outlines the principles that the custody must not violate for the child to be successfully raised by his/her biological parents without having to resort to the protection of other people/organizations);
- The role of the government in parenting (which specifies a child’s right for governmental interference when it concerns defining the competence of biological parents for their position);
- Children’s liberation and the right to an open future (where “the best available parent” is judged by the opportunities he/she can provide);
- The issue of parental love (in which the metaphysical concept of love is explored as a factor that cannot be ignored in deciding the child’s future).
- Conclusion (which summarizes the assumptions made).
Due to the limitations in scope, the study is general, which means that it does not discuss particular cases of families that must not have the right to parent their children. Neither does it touch upon the cases of divorce or families with one biological parent.
Biological Philosophy of Parenting
Before passing on to the arguments supporting the advantages of upbringing provided by biological parents, it is essential to specify how this term should be understood to eliminate possible ambiguity of interpretation.
It has long been disputed whether the genetic relationship is enough for a parent to obtain an unquestionable right to raise his/her child together with the obligations that this right brings about (Read, Fischer, & Lehman 2014). However, there exist two points of view upon the biological ground of parenthood, each providing its understanding of the value of biology in parenting. Those who support the first approach stress the significance of the genetic link between the parent and the child, whereas the proponents of the second view believe that gestation is decisive (Crittenden 2013). The former consider that genetic material derived from an individual makes him/her a biological parent of the child. Thus, the primary condition for parenthood is sharing DNA with the child (Leach 2013).
In this paper, the first view will be discarded as being unable to stand up to criticism. The primary counterargument is that having identical DNA (in case of identical twins) does not mean being parents to the same child (Lytton 2013). Moreover, genetic material can be acquired via sperm donation, which means that a biological parent may be completely unaware of the child’s existence, which is undoubtedly far from the best parenting option for the child (Crittenden 2013).
Yet, neither does the second view seem more acceptable. Advocates of gestation as the primary condition for parenthood believe that men only acquire parental rights and obligations when they marry, through the consent of the gestational mother, which makes her an indisputable authority in deciding the future of the child. Generally, this claim is supported by the idea of justice: mothers have to undergo a substantial risk, effort, and health problems arising from pregnancy (Hibel, Granger, Blair & Finegood 2015). Also, there is a common belief that mothers develop an attachment to their children during the gestation period. Yet, when there is a conflict concerning custody between gestational and genetic mothers, the courts tend to decide cases in favour of the latter, which indicates that genetic connection still seems to have more value (Di Leo 2014).
Although this account of biological connection seems more well-grounded than the previous one, it is still somewhat questionable in terms of identifying who should have the right to parent a child. There are cases of families, in which the child receives more attention and care from the father and is neglected by the mother. Thus, both of them should have equal legal rights to custody in case of divorce (Cabrera & Tamis-LeMonda 2013).
Thus, having analyzed the existing subtypes of a biological approach to parenting, I can conclude that neither of them is consistent and can be relied upon when choosing the best parent for the child. Still, the importance of biological link is not diminished either: the entire process of conceiving, bearing, and taking care of a child is aimed to create a person who is going to reflect some features of his/her parents – this is one of the primary motivations for would-be parents to have a child. Biological parenting acquires unique value as it gives parents the possibility to create a human being in their image. That is why it is believed to be preferable for the child from the psychological point of view. Moreover, the knowledge of one’s biological parents is significant for self-confidence and self-positioning of the child that he/she needs to build a meaningful life (Di Leo 2014). Yet, it is crucial to remember that this ground only is insufficient if the child does not receive care and love even in his/her biological family. Social, personal, and moral values deserve to be given much closer attention.
The Concept of Child’s Best Interests
This philosophy of parenting is based upon the idea that children must be brought up by custodians who can best meet all their needs. Thus, parental rights are predetermined by the ability of potential parents to provide the necessary context for a happy childhood (Scott & Emery 2014). This child-centred model of children’s rights is now rather popular among scholars, who believe that children are dependent beings and need unceasing supervision and protection from individuals who are not indifferent to their welfare. Despite being convincing, the theory does not explain how an individual may receive the right to parent a child (if we step away from the biological ground). It claims that there is no need for children to be raised by the people who conceived them since there are a lot of examples of foster families that could provide better care than the child’s biological parents (Gheaus 2012).
This attitude to parenting seems reasonable at first sight. Yet, in its extreme interpretation, it leads to a logical question: why not allocate babies to the “best” parent when they are born? This already seems to be absurd as it would lead to the creation of an anti-utopia instead of normal human society. Also, the theory does not clearly state what should be regarded as the best interest of the child, and the term remains rather vague. Should financial interests be taken as the leading principle? Or, is affection also placed on the list? (De Vries et al. 2013).
Anyway, this theory partially supports the idea of the paper in its basic assumptions. However, I will not attempt to provide a list of services, actions, and feelings that are required to meet the basic needs of a child. What is important for proving my argument is to decide upon the principles connected with the child’s well-being that should not be violated by his/her biological parents to be able to preserve the right to raise their own child without resorting to any other custody options. These principles are:
- the family should preserve its integrity: the child should not be sent away from home and brought up by governmental institutions or relatives (Del Boca, Flinn, & Wiswall 2014);
- the child’s health and safety needs must not be ignored (Leopold, Raab & Engelhardt 2014);
- if the child has to be removed from the home for a certain period, he/she must be guaranteed due care and guidance until he/she reunites with the family (Hetherington 2014);
- parents should establish emotional ties with their children and satisfy not only their physical but also their psychological and emotional needs (Voland 2014);
- children should be provided with a secure home, adequate nutrition, clothing, and care (Bornstein & Bradley 2014);
- physical and mental needs of children should be satisfied for them to take the most agreeable course of development(Bornstein & Bradley 2014);
- the child must never be subjected to domestic violence or any kind of psychological pressure (Jurkovic 2014).
As we can see, the requirements to parents are rather self-evident and do not place them in the conditions that would be too demanding to have children. Still, I believe that it is wrong to apply this set of principles to anyone who claims the right to parent someone else’s children. As it has already been mentioned, this measure seems reasonable only if biological parents of the child are unable to provide him/her with the due level of care. Yet, to avoid unpleasant consequences for the child, in addition to the list, it may also be suggested to consider his/her own wishes in the determination of best interests. The child of a certain level of maturity should have the right to express his/her preferences about the family (Bornstein 2014). In certain cases, it would be cruel to separate the child from his/her foster parents only because the biological family has been found and is able to provide him/her with all the necessary things for a living.
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The Role of the Government in Parenting
It has long been disputed whether the government has the right to decide the child’s best interests when determining his/her allocation in the family. The scope of governmental interference in this matter varies across the globe. In some countries, the government strives to go beyond its basic intermediary function and impose supervision on parents to ensure that children are raised in the best possible conditions (Dingwall, Eekelaar, & Murray 2014). For instance, the Scottish government has passed the bill that gives the state the right to appoint guardians, whose responsibility will be to supervise all the children in the country from birth until coming of age. This is a clear example of expanding the role of the state in a way that seems shocking and unaccountable. Parents, therefore, will lose their right for privacy as the state is going to intrude into every household with what is claimed to be the best intentions. A guardian, who is entitled to track each child to detect any violations of parenting principles, is tantamount to government surveillance and creates an unhealthy atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Moreover, guardians are going to have free access to all family records, report on the child’s state of physical and mental health, interfere with family conflicts and suggest household changes that would allow creating the most suitable childrearing environment (Harding 2014).
I believe that if this bill becomes a law and gets spread to other countries, it will mean that it is the government who will decide how to best raise a child. The authorities will have the right to override the parents’ decisions concerning education, health, hobbies, religion, and other aspects of their children’s life. This turns the right of children to be parented by the best available parent into the right of the government to decide how parents should act to be able to preserve custody over their children who can be handed to other people’s care in case of any mistake.
Of course, it would be wrong to diminish the power of the state in dealing with abusive parents as children certainly need protection from violence. Nevertheless, I believe that the right of parents to bring up their children according to their values should not be violated by the government. It is crucial to understand the difference between allowing the child to be parented in the best available conditions and to impose rules that are meant to create such conditions artificially.
Children’s Liberation and the Right to an Open Future
Proponents of another extreme view go even further claiming that children not only have the right to choose parents with the assistance of the state but should be freed from any paternal control whatsoever as it signalizes inequality and injustice. Thereby, they undermine the status quo of parents and challenge their authority (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil 2013). According to this theory, children have full rights and freedoms that adults possess, including the right to choose another custodian who seems preferable than their biological parents. Granting the same status to children would also mean sexual liberation, right to vote, have a family at any age, etc., which seems to be unreasonable. However, the same rights do not mean equal capacities and obligations. This contradicts the principle of equality and justice, on which the theory relies. Despite this evident contradiction, many scholars claim that lacking capacities is not a good reason to deny rights (Prout 2016).
I do not support the idea of children’s liberation since I am convinced that paternalistic treatment gives them a perfect opportunity to develop their skills, knowledge, and capacities, which is essential for becoming self-sustained adults. Besides, liberated children will be able to refuse of any kind of parenting as for many of them it means having to oblige to rules, go to school, follow the schedule, and perform many other activities, which they consider boring but which are quite indispensable to their future well-being (Porter 2014). Limiting children’s rights means directing their energy and protecting them from insensible decisions and harmful influence of the environment (dangerous habits, criminal activities, exploitative employment, etc.). Parents help their children develop not only physically but also intellectually and morally (Brighouse & Swift 2014). Thus, having the right to the best available parenting should not be understood as the right to have no guidance at all.
A more moderate version of this approach states that children have the right to keep all the options open until the time when they can make choices based on their preferences. From this perspective, parents violate the rights of their child if they keep some options closed to him/her (including the choice of education, career, and religion as well as the option of living with his/her biological or foster parents, mother or father, etc.) (Archard 2014).
I agree that children should be provided with a maximally broad range of life options; however, we should also bear in mind that directing to particular choices is unavoidable for parents, so they cannot be criticized for that, and the concept of “the best available parent” should not be understood as the one which provides maximum freedom.
The Issue of Parental Love
Although there is no law regulating this factor, parental love is perhaps the most important condition determining the level of the child’s welfare (Liao 2015). Unless children have an opportunity to be raised in a loving family, they are unlikely to develop necessary qualities and capacities needed in adult life as their psychological, cognitive, and social skills will be affected most negatively. It is essential to understand that love cannot be commanded by regulations or morality. There are cases when people feel obliged by their status to love their children. It seems to be more honest to allow children to find real affection in another family that is willing to parent him/her (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil 2013).
There exist a lot of different approaches to understanding the parental role in bringing up children. While some believe that genetics has an unquestionable role (depriving children of any other options of custody), others say that the child’s interests should be considered as a decisive factor. Moreover, there is an open question about the level of interference of the government into the family matters. Still, despite all controversies and the freedom that children should have in choosing their guardian, the most favourable option for children is to be raised by their biological parents. The latter can provide them with due care, safety, guidance, and love.
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