Is Having Children a Right or a Responsibility?

By Michael Edmonds 07/06/2012 11

Over the past few weeks the Minister for Social Development and Youth Affairs, Paula Bennett, has provoked some controversy first by suggesting that free (voluntary) contraception be available to beneficiaries and their children, and then suggesting that children should be removed from previous child abusers.

For a government that portrays itself as being opposed to the  “nanny state” I find this surprising. What I find even more surprising is that, to a large extent, I agree with Paula Bennett.

Over the past few years it has become quite clear that New Zealand has a deplorable record when it comes to child abuse. Statistically, New Zealand has the 5th worst record on child abuse out of 31 OECD countries and in the media we have seen some horrific cases.

For those growing up in non-abusive families it can be easy to underestimate the damage that child abuse does to our society. This was me 18 years ago before I taught secondary school for a short period of time. During this time I met a lot of children with behavioural problems most of the which were the result of poor and abusive parenting.  I still remember going home exhausted and crying because of the damage I could see and didn’t have a hope in hell of “fixing”. (This is also why I have incredible respect for those who choose teaching as a career).

I also have two good friends who adopted a school age child who turned up flea ridden and unwashed, unable to use a knife and fork or toilet himself properly. It has taken them years for this boy to learn what most people would consider basic skills, and not to flinch when he does something wrong. I think he now has a very good chance of growing into an intelligent young man who will be a productive member of society. I hate to think what would of happened to him if he hadn’t been rescued from a neglectful environment.

Many opponents to Paula Bennett’s proposals focus on the “rights” of a parent, but never mention the responsibilities. Some politicize and exaggerate these proposals suggesting that next there will be forced sterilization.

New Zealand has a terrible record when it comes to the abuse of children. We need to do better. While I would prefer to see this achieved through better education of parents, I think there is a good case for making sure those who have demonstrated that they are incapable of raising children without abusing them.

I suspect the reason that this proposal will be vigorously opposed it that there will be much concern over what would/is considered child abuse. Parents are not perfect, most will lose their temper at one stage or another, shouting or even hitting a child. While this is not ideal, so long as Ms Bennett focuses on those who perpetually abuse or neglect children I think this could be a good move. Indeed, in my darker, more frustrated moods, sometimes even the idea of forced sterilization seems appealing.

11 Responses to “Is Having Children a Right or a Responsibility?”

  • There are several ethical questions here. Who decides about the parental worthiness of others? If we give the state such powers to decide issues of morality of others it can be dangerous. We have been there before in New Zealand with a Eugenics Board and various policies of institutionalisation, and sterilisation of groups deemed less human and less worthy than other groups of humans.
    As well, anyone who is involved with child support and counselling will tell you that middle class white men are just as capable of child abuse, but more adept at hiding or normalising it. An equitable policy would have to consider sterilising them too. Who will police the suburbs deciding who is allowed to breed and who isn’t?

  • The problem is this is still an ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ solution. New Zealand has a deplorable child abuse record, yes, but does anyone think there’s no reason for that? Policies like removing children from known child abusers isn’t addressing the cause, it’s only (theoretically) preventing repeat offenders. And how many repeat offenders are there really? It’s like building more prisons and increasing sentences instead of addressing the causes of crime (another thing this government likes to do).

    Poverty, lack of education, welfare, tax policy, parents having to go back to work when their children are too young… these are the causes of child abuse. Let’s look to countries who have low abuse rates and see how they’ve accomplished it. Otherwise, policies like these are the equivalent of throwing our hands up in defeat.

  • “sometimes even the idea of forced sterilization seems appealing”

    I think the case for this is equivocal when it comes to habitual sexual and physical abusers of children. However, I think that, with constructive therapy, many more people will agree to sterilisation themselves. Look at the incredible work done by Project Prevention.

    Strange how you mention the rights of the parents but not the rights of the children.

  • Good point Hilary, but surely there is a a baseline level of parenting that should be expected – e.g. no beatings, neglect of basic hygiene skills, malnutrition etc.

  • James, you make some good points. I guess form a government’s point of few the approaches you suggest are more costly and will take more time, something this (and most governments) probably dont find too appealing

  • @Hillary

    Is anyone actually proposing sterilization in this contemporary setting?

    If they are, then I’d like to know about it. Can you direct me to a reference so I can find out more?

    If they are not, then I think that the current proposals are significantly different enough from the core defining features of a Eugenics Board that the attempt to use the bogey man of Eugenics to tar the current policies is amongst the weakest of all possible counter-arguments.

    • No one has really proposed sterilization. Some opponents have mentioned it as part of a “slippery slope” type argument

  • I surprised that this is even a topic of conversation. Not for, Bennett, for anyone else I mean. I don’t see how the talk from Bennett can be seen as anything more than another round of the Paula Bennett diversionary sideshow.

    The talk from Bennett has been vague, the policy unformed, the coalition partners uninformed. It’s not that it’s something that doesn’t need to be talked about, if there had actually been some proper policy work done, some time spent talking about it with some of their supporting partners then yes, I would regard this as a serious attempt at a conversation.

    As it stands though, as best I can tell, the only reason it’s out there at the moment is so that when anyone tries to get back to subjects that they’re not handling well (education atm), they can then turn around and accuse people of being on the side of child abusers. Engaging in the discussion at this point in time means the strategy has succeeded. It’s happened before (teenagers, solo mums, long term unemployed/dole bludgers), I really wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen again.

  • I think people need to step back a little and think about the bigger picture. Could it be that the real problem is lack of knowledge about and access to contraceptives? Its too early to be talking about solutions when we don’t know what the problem is. I do however see a great irony in this debate. Once feminist activists spoke out about a woman’s right NOT to have children.

  • Ben,

    Good point, but National may be stumbling from one poorly chosen battle (class sizes) to another (contraception).
    And from the 6 pm news tonight they have lost their battle over class size – hurray!