One of the great discoveries of the twentieth century is the rights of children. From their status almost as chattels of a patriarchal society — as portrayed so indignantly by Charles Dickens — children have evolved into human beings with dignity equal to that of adults, their own charter of rights and official advocates in the form of children’s commissioners. They even have laws in some countries to stay the parental hand that would administer a swift smack or clip around the ear.
To understand what we have left behind — in reality, and not just in Dickensian caricature — we need look no further than a recent report on the heartless and brutal regimes that prevailed in Irish industrial schools and other “childcare” institutions in the first half of last century and, in certain forms, in later decades. To read even a summary of the massive dossier compiled by the Ryan commission is to stare into a world of childhood suffering that makes one feel sick and ashamed of the human race.
Thankfully, such institutions have disappeared from the face of the earth, or at least from developed societies. Contemporary culture abhors institutions so there is no danger that children will run foul of them and be knocked about for it.
But there is another danger, and it is all too evident in the reports of child abuse in private homes that appear with distressing regularity; that is the danger of a culture in which self-expression has become the ruling ethos, and in which adults’ right to choose increasingly trumps the basic needs and rights of children.
The prime example of this privatised abuse is abortion, which, as the direct killing of an innocent human being, is a more fundamental and inhuman form of child abuse than anything the old institutions came up with, and just as hidden. It has been said, with some justice, that abortion is seed-bed of today’s often lethal abuse of infants. Certainly, it creates an excuse for abusers: if you can destroy an unwanted child before birth, why not after?
One such case is before a court in New Zealand this week; it concerns the death of a one-year-old boy while in the care — supposedly — of his uncle and the uncle’s partner, who is accused of the abuse. The case coincides with the release of a report by the Children's Commissioner on risk factors for death and serious injury from assault of children under five years old in New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of child abuse among the richer countries.
According to the commissioner, “The report also highlights some risks we need to give more attention to in this country. For instance, there is a particular risk when babies are left in the care of young men who are not biological fathers. (Emphasis added.) They are often totally unprepared for the stresses of a crying baby and may already have problems with anger or alcohol abuse.
”International research has found that they often lash out in an attempt to ‘silence’ the child. With knowledge like this we can make sure that funding and resources to reduce child abuse are directed to the right places and at the right people.”
Well, let’s see what happens. It is very doubtful that “resources” will be applied to the real problem: the undisputed right of adults to drift in and out of “relationships” without regard to the rights and welfare of any resulting children.
The fundamental issue is this: all children deserve and need a loving biological father and a loving biological mother in a stable home. The further you move from that ideal — which most children grow up in — the more potential for abuse there is.
Far from minimising this potential, however, we are actually embracing adult “rights” that put more and more children at risk. Through our laissez-faire attitude to sex and marriage, through practices associated with in vitro fertilisation, we are creating children who do not know their parents — especially their father — or who are alienated from them by divorce. We foster and finance the institutions which facilitate things like divorce and IVF because it makes the parents, or, a parent, feel good.
In these situations in recent times there has been at least lip-service paid to the principle that the welfare or “interests” of the child are “paramount”. Sorry, kids, that is about to go out the window too.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics this month about IVF, B Solberg asks, If a child does not yet exist, what meaning can its “welfare” have? None, he suggests. Children born in the traditional way may have “interests”, but not ones whom we create: “Potential children seem to be outside morality.”
What really matters in assisted reproduction, says the Norwegian, is the “parental project” of the adults; if it is “meaningful and doable” let them go ahead. He draws the line at providing IVF children for drug addicts, but says the technology ought to be available for homosexual couples, saviour siblings, sex selection — and anything else that would result in a “functional family”.
Admittedly we are talking here about an obscure article in a journal that appeals mainly to the overheated brains of bioethicists, but it is on just such arguments that the IVF industry depends for its expansion.
In the areas of adoption and fostering there is emerging the same airy disregard for the welfare of children and even the rights and/or interests of birth parents who, for several decades have been treated as partners in their child’s transition to a new family, or a foster family.
Catholic charities in the UK are being forced into a corner where they must abandon adoption work or comply with new regulations which require them to consider homosexual couples as potential adopters, despite their belief that this is a violation of the rights of the child.
Local authorities are handing over children to same-sex couples for fostering against the wishes of birth parents and even when foster care within the extended family is possible. A Catholic mother who placed her 10-year-old son in care after a mental breakdown, is distressed that he has been sent to live with a middle-aged homosexual couple who run a hotel in Brighton. Can the authorities rule out the possibility of sexual abuse in such a case?
Foster care itself is a murky area which in some countries seems on the verge of collapse, as children are farmed out to whoever is on hand and just as arbitrarily removed. Unsuitable foster parents and instability must be the cause of terrible unhappiness to many children. Those who are not able to be placed with foster families end up in group accommodation, which is probably like a mini-orphanage with at least some of the old potential for abuse, including bullying and sexual abuse by other children.
Yes, institutionalised abuse may be gone, but there is absolutely no ground for complacency on that score. Today’s abuse is different, but the fact that it has been privatised makes it not one bit less real or horrific.
And the fact that it occurs in the name of freedom of choice makes it not one bit more excusable. But tackling the assumption that adults must not be impeded in their life “projects” would require a revolution in social ethics that would extend to divorce, sex education, pornography, drug use and, of course, abortion.
In its recommendations on future child policy in Ireland the Ryan report said that existing national guidelines should be uniformly and consistently implemented throughout the State in order to protect vulnerable people. The short title of those guidelines is “Children First”. To put children first, however, Ireland would have to swim against the tide of “adults first” that is lapping the shores of all supposedly advanced societies.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.