FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

License to Parent

Occasionally, there comes along a concept that's at once smart and horrifying. One of these is the idea of regulating parenthood. In the book Should Parents Be Licensed?, editor Peg Tittle has assembled essays exploring issues such as requiring prospective parents to be certified for fitness; prenatal child abuse; compulsory contraception; and who should determine the fundamental right to have children.

We witness examples of abysmal parenting on a daily basis, whether we watch a parent explode at their kids in a mall or grocery store, or hear about someone convicted of infanticide on the evening news. Cleary, there are many parents out there who have no business being around kids, and don't have the financial, emotional or intellectual resources to raise them. Children don't ask to be born, and many adults don't ask to be parents.

But doing something about it (i.e. implementing the ideas set forth in Tittle's book) cuts to the very core of individual rights and freedoms. If you don't have the right to perform the most imtimate and profound acts with your body -- make love, conceive and give birth to a child -- what rights can you possibly have? More concretely, what criteria would be used to determine parental fitness? Who would set those criteria? What would happen to a couple who conceived a child without a permit? What would happen to the child? If a woman miscarries a child because she doesn't eat properly, could she be charged with murder? Enforcing these ideas as laws would sow the seeds of a police state, with Nazi Germany as an extreme example. Ultimately, we'd have a two-tier society of those "fit" and "unfit." And if you happen to be judged "unfit," what else would you be good for?

You may be intrigued or repulsed by the positions taken in this book... but you must agree that the questions it sets forth have no simple answers. They are issues that society will have to face in the coming years, especially as we continue to debate abortion, contraception, teen sexuality and population growth.

Read more about the book in this New York Times Book Review excerpt. For more discussion on emerging parenthood issues, check out the Half Changed World blog.