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Breeding the pure

Twenty-first century eugenics

Should Parents Be Licensed:
Debating the Issues

Edited by Peg Tittle
Prometheus Books, 2004

Review by Shawna Goodrich

If you think that A) North American society can’t get any scarier B) the expectations on mothers can’t get any worse or C) current government regulations on women are excessive, then you should read Should Parents Be Licensed: Debating the Issues. The ideas on developing a national parental licensing program expressed by the editor Peg Tittle and contributors from across North America surpass all imaginable thresholds of looming threats— they are nothing short of hair-raising. At first, I had to wonder if Should Parents Be Licensed merits a review. The premises, assumptions, arguments and propositions put forward by professors of law, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, sociology, moral philosophy, and political science seem both too maniacal and beyond the realm of possibility to take seriously.

Reviewing a book published in 2004 arguing in favor of eugenics, under the euphemisms of educating, legislating, and regulating conception, birth and parenting to protect ‘children’s rights’, is like reading Brave New World as a cogent contemporary thesis. Furthermore, the title of this book fails to adequately capture the authors’ intentions, which in itself warrants a critical review. I fear that this book could find an audience among readers searching for a greater sense of social stability and certainty, during a time of enormous social, economic, and racial upheaval. As a reviewer, I can’t and won’t claim to provide an unbiased critique of this book. What I can offer is an unambiguous account of what the authors propose.

Should Parents Be Licensed is divided into three sections: arguments and proposals in favor of creating a national licensing program, arguments in favor of genetic restrictions, controls, and enhancements, and objections and replies to genetic restrictions and enhancements.

All the authors argue in favor of planned breeding and child-rearing using a national licensing program. Such a program would establish ‘minimum’ requirements (to be discussed further on) for prospective parents, including enrolling in a parenting education program, passing a series of tests and assessments, participating in counseling, if necessary, obtaining a license, signing a legally binding contract, and agreeing to varying degrees of surveillance and intervention. In conjunction with a national licensing program the authors also propose genetic restrictions and other reproductive regulations, to be administrated by federal and state governments. Differences between the authors have to do with what the minimum criteria should be for prospective parents, the most efficient means to administer a licensing program, how to approach genetic restrictions, and what values should be emphasized, regarding the aforementioned.

As an introduction to arguments in favor of developing a national licensing program, editor Peg Tittle asks the following questions:

How many children have been punished because they could not do what their parents mistakenly thought they should be able to do at a certain age— remember X, carry Y, say Z? How many have been disadvantaged because they grew up on junk food— for their bodies as well as their minds? How many have been neglected because their parents didn’t notice the seeds of some talent? And how often have parents “undermine(d) a girl’s attempt to be strong and independent? Or repeatedly punishe(d) a boy for crying or for allegedly sissy interests?

For the sake of convenience, allow me to answer Tittle’s questions. I would hazard a guess that all children, regardless of the extent of their parent’s competence, have been ‘punished,’ ‘disadvantaged,’ ‘neglected,’ and ‘undermined’ in the manner she outlines. I readily admit that my children have suffered under the weight of my impatience when not meeting my expectations. With regards to junk food, my children have had their share. Their consumption of junk food is, in part, an unfortunate reality of living in a fast-food, commodity driven nation. Tittle might argue that my children have been neglected because I choose to foster some of their talents over others. Have I ever undermined my daughter’s attempts to be strong and independent? If losing my patience and yelling at her qualifies, then yes. But, the question at large is what do these incidences speak to? For me, they speak to my character flaws, my imperfections as a human being and mother, not to mention the demands of parenthood.

But, superficialities aside Tittle’s questions convey a notion that it is possible and desirable to condition, coerce, regulate, and control human beings in the prospect of creating a tidy, manageable society. They also express a stanch opinion held by all the contributing authors that individuals are accountable to society rather than the reverse, or that the two make up a synergetic relationship.

What does Tittle suggest in terms of licensing parents? She offers a model developed by contributing author Westman, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, as potential criteria to determining prospective parent’s suitability. Five categories with corollary criteria structure Westman’s model. A ‘physical’ category would require that prospective parents (women) meet a minimum and perhaps a maximum age. A ‘cognitive’ category would require that women ‘comprehend’ child development, which Tittle acknowledges “might disqualify not only mentally challenged adults,” but also members of various religions that “(create) serious barriers to the development of (the child’s) capacities for autonomous decision making because they are irrationalist and/or sexist.” An ‘emotional’ category would require that prospective parents be “patient, affectionate, and emotionally mature.” A ‘social’ category would disqualify prospective parents that had a history of suffering abuse on the grounds that they are more likely to abuse. Any previous abusive behaviors or other criminal activities would also eliminate candidates. A ‘financial’ category would require that prospective parents have an adequate income to meet their children’s basic food, shelter, clothing and other needs. And also, given the trends in educational systems of reducing extracurricular and arts programs, Tittle suggests that prospective parents must prove that they have provisions to provide minimum enrichment. Prospective parents, meeting these ‘minimum’ criteria, could then exercise their ‘right’ to enroll in mandatory parent training courses.

Before moving on to discuss other anti-natalist measures proposed by the authors, it is useful to interpret and examine the categories and criteria of Westman’s model. Who would this model disqualify as prospective parents? Women younger than 20 years of age or over 35 would not be eligible. The authors are unanimous in the view that all prospective parents must obtain a high-school diploma but are less settled if the minimum age should be 18 or older. Of women meeting the age requirements, those unable or unwilling to ‘comprehend’ child development, as understood by the authors, would be disqualified. It seems that women with a history of emotional inconsistency— which to my knowledge includes the entire human race— would be held in suspicion and accountable for attributes of their temperaments that put them ‘at risk.’ Of course, the emotional category overlaps with the social (history of abuse, criminal activities) and economic ones which would serve to preclude women on the basis of race, class, sexuality and (dis)ability. I think it is safe to assume that poor, marginalized, of color, and immigrant women would face the greatest barriers in obtaining a parental license.

In the second section of the book the authors discuss the notion that in some cases reproduction is immoral, in particular when there is a risk of passing on a genetic disease. Joseph Fletcher, professor of medical ethics at University of Virginia and professor emeritus at the Episcopal Theological School, argues in favor of compulsory birth control. Fletcher offers the following comments:

Our moral obligation is to control the quality as well as the quantity of the children we bring into the worlds.

Producing our children by “sexual roulette” without preconceptive and uterine control, simply taking “pot luck” from random sexual combinations is irresponsible— now that we can be genetically selective and know how to monitor against congenital infirmities.

Arguing that the general welfare of society comes first, Fletcher and several other authors maintain that the right to have children is not absolute. They insist on establishing restrictions to reproduction (negative eugenics), most of all for individuals that are severely mentally handicapped.

The book concludes with ‘Objections and Replies’. Edgar R. Chasteen, professor of sociology and anthropology at William Jewell College, is in favor of legislating population control by mandating contraception. Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, argues eugenics is inescapable. With the proliferation of genetic tests, Kitcher maintains that we currently practice a form of laissez-faire eugenics. He rejects laissez-faire eugenics and is in favor of “utopian eugenics” (a form of planned and controlled eugenics).

Three premises are central to the author’ arguments in favor of reproductive and parental regulations. First, any activity that is potentially dangerous to others should be restricted and regulated to safeguard society. To underscore the logic of this premise the authors invoke an analogy between obtaining a driver’s license and a parental license. Applying the driver’s license analogy, they propose that any prospective parent judged incompetent or suspect “even though they had never maltreated children” should be denied a license but later given the opportunity to participate in education to “improve their chances of passing the next test.”

Their second premise, which builds on the first, is that the notion of parenthood as an ‘unconditional’ right is dangerous and misguided and must be replaced with a more progressive view— parenthood as a privilege. Roger McIntire, professor emeritus of psychology, says,

We can hope that as progress occurs in the technology of contraception and the knowledge of child-rearing principles, the currently sacred “right to parent” will be reevaluated by our society.

Katherine Covell and R. Brian Howe, directors of the Children’s Rights Centre in Cape Breton Canada say,

(a)buse and neglect in various forms will continue until we as a society value parenthood; until we regard parenting as a privilege, rather than as a by-product of sexual intercourse, a route to adult identity, or a route to social assistance.

Reasoning that parenting is a privilege rather than a right LaFollette says, “Denying a parenting license to someone who is not competent does not violate that person’s rights.” Followed by the statement, “In light of the severity of harm maltreated children suffer, the restraint appears relatively minor.”

Raising questions about intentional or unintentional abuses in a licensing program through government administration LaFollette offers the following reassurances:

This objection can be dispensed with fairly easily unless one assumes there is some special reason to believe that more mistakes will be made in administering parenting licenses than in other regulatory activities.

There is no reason to believe that the licensing of parents is more likely to be abused than driver’s license tests or other regulatory procedures.

And finally the triumvirate premise: the costs incurred to society of not implementing controlled breeding and parenting is too great— an argument historically relied on to justify the oppression of human rights. Westman says “The way children are parented plays a vital role in the quality of all our lives. We no longer can afford to avoid defining and confronting incompetent parenting.”

Call it a misguided impression or paranoia but I don’t get a warm, fuzzy ‘child-rights’ feeling from these folks. I think the words of a Beatle’s song more aptly express my reaction to these authors— “You better run for your life if you can, little girl.”

mmo : december 2004

Shawna Goodrich lives on an island outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a writer and mother of two. Ms. Goodrich is a regular contributor to the MMO.

Also on the MMO:

Is motherhood a class privilege in America?
An interview with historian Rickie Solinger

Let’s Talk About Mothers and Choices
Essay by Shawna Goodrich

Poverty and the politics of care
Review of Sharon Hays' Flat Broke with Children and other recent books on motherhood and poverty, plus commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

Correction: The original version of this review erroneously reported that Hugh LaFollette, one of the contributing writers of "Should Parents Be Licensed," was or had previously been affiliated with a eugenics group. After receiving a complaint from Mr. LaFollette in May 2007, the reference and related text was removed from the article.
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