Parental Rights and the Duties of Conscience

R. J. Snell
April 30, 2019
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Children are no small matter. We don't simply have offspring or produce another member of the species, for children are persons endowed with intrinsic and unalienable dignity. To have a child is to become responsible for a being of incalculable value and worth.

To become a parent is to shoulder the remarkable duty to nurture, educate, form, and guide a dependent person into the fullness of their freedom and responsible self-governance. This is a somewhat awe-inspiring task, requiring the full range of intelligence and moral seriousness.

Since parents have this grave obligation, they also have rights. That is, since parents have duties to and for their children, including the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral well-being of children, parents have rights to exercise this care without needless interference from others or the state.

Because parents have the primary obligation and thus right to raise their children, the state should presume parental rights unless parents fail in their obligations through neglect, abandonment, abuse, or incompetence. Otherwise, however, the state should support parents as they exercise their own responsible judgment.

Yet, not every state seems to understand this. While not unique to New Jersey, consider the Garden State's recent passage of a LGBT education law which requires "that the boards of education for middle and high schools ensure that instructional materials, such as text books, include accurate portrayals of the contributions made by LGBTQ people and those with disabilities." This legislation follows a new set of guidelines passed in September 2018 stating that a "school district shall accept a student's asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required," for there "is no affirmative duty for any school district personnel to notify a student's parent or guardian of the student's gender identity of expression." Similarly, New Jersey law does not "specifically require healthcare professionals to obtain parental consent before a minor receives family planning services or contraceptives," although it is not uncommon for New Jersey schools to require parental permission, in writing, to administer even over-the counter medications and must report to parents any medication administered in emergency or life-threatening situations. In other words, parental permission is required for the school nurse to help a student with her asthma, but her parents need not be informed if she decides to change her gender identity, and parents certainly have no freedom to avoid the state's relentless reeducation program with respect to transgenderism and homosexuality.

Now, while New Jersey does allow parents to opt out of portions of "family life education classes" which are "in conflict with his or her conscience or sincerely held moral or religious beliefs," such allowance is not extended to parental obligations concerning their child's gender identity, access to contraception, or history classes in which transgenderism will be celebrated. Why not? Why doesn't conscience extend to these areas as well?

In large part, it is because conscience is so poorly understood. In his classic discussion of conscience, John Henry Newman distinguishes between conscience properly understood and the common, albeit incoherent, version. Properly understood, conscience is a "stern monitor" which identifies one's duties under the moral law, it issues demands of what one must or must not do - what is obligatory. This as opposed to the false understanding which views conscience as "self-will," a permission-slip so long as one does not feel guilty about it. Now because genuine conscience issues obligations, there are rights of conscience, not merely because one wants something or feels good or bad about something but because one judges a moral obligation. One cannot do (or refrain from doing) an action because it would be morally impermissible to do, perhaps even understood as a violation of God's commandment.

Traditionally, our culture has esteemed rights in order to safeguard the duties of free citizens. Parents, having obligations to their children, were understood to have parental rights, including rights of conscience, so they could exercise their freedom in keeping with the demands of the moral law.

Increasingly, and to our peril, the state is willing to run roughshod over parental rights, all in the name of the self-will of some at the expense of the duties of others. (Alas, this is all too common - for other instances of state overreach as well as commentary from the Culture of Life Foundation, please click here.)

The struggle for parental rights, I believe, will be a defining mark of our time, not just in New Jersey, and along with this struggle our understanding of what it means to be human, to be free, to be responsible, to follow conscience, and to keep the moral law.