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If children lack rights, adults don't have them either

By Robert Darby - posted Wednesday, 26 September 2012

It comes as a surprise to find a self-proclaimed libertarian atheist denying that individuals have the right to bodily integrity and even asserting that adults are entitled to cut bits off their children "for religious reasons". Anybody who has followed Brendan O'Neill's politico-journalistic career will be familiar with his dogmatic, bullying style, but in his latest attack (The Drum, 17 September) on the right of children to control of their own body he returns to his roots as an authoritarian Stalinoid.

Those unacquainted with the history of the coterie now associated with Spiked may be interested to know that Mr O'Neill honed his rhetorical skills with the Revolutionary Communist Party, the most ultra-left of all the British left groups in the 1980s. Financed by rich graduates, it was vehemently opposed to any reforms that might delay the (inevitable) revolution by improving the conditions of ordinary people. According to Nick Cohen (What's Left?), RCP activists used to disrupt protests against cuts to health services in Britain or apartheid in South Africa because they were a distraction from the real task: violent, revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.

Members of the group abandoned the usual left positions in the 1990s and became knee-jerk contrarians; the mainstream media loved them because they could be relied on to provoke controversy and attract attention by saying the opposite of what everybody else on their side of the ideological fence were saying, especially liberals. Their journal Living Marxism became LM, and in this guise won undesired notoriety (and lost a libel case) when it denied that the Serbs were committing atrocities in Bosnia; according to LM, humanitarian intervention against ethnic cleansing was merely a trick to "manufacture consent" for a war of aggression by US Imperialism.


Eventually the group drifted away from any kind of left or liberal position, and became champions of such unlikely causes as nuclear power, genetic modification and, it would seem, an unfettered parental right to modify the genitals of their children. Although Mr O'Neill (according to Wikipedia) calls himself an "atheistic libertarian", he has regularly attacked critics of religion as "intolerant", and defended the rights of believers to their practices, even when those practices infringe the rights of others.

O'Neill may have been a political activist, but his understanding of political philosophy is weak. Unfortunately for his attack on children's/defence of parents' rights, the political theories that give parents extensive powers over their children also give the ruler absolute power over his subjects; theories that give citizens rights against the state also give children rights against their parents, and thereby limit the power of the latter. O'Neill's version of parents' rights is essentially that of Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century champion of absolute monarchy:

Children, therefore, whether they be brought up and preserved by the father, or by the mother … are in the most absolute subjection to him or her …. And they may alienate them, that is, assign his or her dominion, by selling, or giving them, in adoption or servitude to others; or may pawn them for hostages, kill them for rebellion, or sacrifice them for peace, by the law of nature, when he or she, in his or her conscience, think it to be necessary.

Hobbes was no libertarian; he argued that the sovereign had just as much power over his subjects as a parent over his children; for the sake of order, they had no political rights, but must follow the directives of the ruler, in matters of conscience and religion as much as in secular affairs.

The concepts of citizenship, freedom of conscience and religious toleration derive from a later seventeenth century thinker, John Locke, who proposed the revolutionary idea that the sovereign ruled only by the consent of the governed. It is significant that he developed his arguments as a critique of Robert Filmer, a follower of Hobbes and exponent of the divine right of kings. He had argued that the king enjoyed absolute power because he was in the same relation to his subjects as a father to his children: the monarch's authority over his subjects derived from the father's authority over his children.

In asserting that citizens did enjoy rights – to privacy, autonomy, religious belief, political participation, among others – Locke rejected Filmer's analogy and argued that it was invalid for two reasons: first because all persons owned their bodies, and secondly because parents did not have absolute power over their children. The authority of parents derived from their duty to care for their offspring and nurture them towards maturity; it was a temporary stewardship, lasting only as long as it took their children to become independent:


Children ... are not born IN this full state of Equality, but they are born TO it. Their Parents have a sort of Rule and Jurisdiction over them when they come into the World, and for some time after, but 'tis a temporary one. … The Power, then, that Parents have over their Children arises from that Duty which is incumbent upon them, to take care of their Off-spring during their imperfect state of Childhood. To inform the Mind, and govern the Actions of their yet ignorant Nonage, till Reason shall take its place.

In other words, it was by rejecting the patriarchal notion that parents had absolute power over their children that Locke was able to refute the theory of the divine right of kings and introduce the concept of limited and responsible government. The state was not the property of the ruler, but a trust to which he owed responsible stewardship; the consent of the governed was the source of the ruler's authority; citizens had the very rights so vigorously championed by Mr O'Neill: political participation and a significant degree of autonomy from state interference. It follows that if children lack rights against those who have power over them – their parents – adults lack rights against those who have power over them – the government.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of genital cutting, O'Neill shows himself to be equally ignorant. In asserting that female circumcision (genital mutilation, if you prefer) is incomparably worse than male circumcision he is merely retailing a vulgar prejudice that has no basis in reality.

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About the Author

Dr Robert Darby is an independent researcher with an interest in many aspects of medical and cultural history, bioethics and social issues. He is the author of several books, including A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain, and numerous articles in journals. He lives in Canberra.

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