In the context of the upcoming Supreme Court case addressing the issue of same-sex marriage, there has been a large degree of speculation about how Justice Anthony Kennedy could be expected to cast his vote. In an article from the Los Angelos Times Kennedy is quoted as saying that he is a strong believer in the rights of individuals to "make personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education." This quote was passed off in the article as a testament to Kennedy's belief in the rights of individuals to make decisions about their life free from government interference and nothing more. And while to most of the article's readers it likely seemed fairly unproblematic, the level of Orwellian doublespeak in such a statement is actually quite striking if one simply takes a moment to examine it critically.
It is truly bizarre that in our political culture as well as in the wider society, choices about "child rearing and education" are seen as individual rights of a sort with the choices that an individual makes about her own lifestyle, family, relationships, and body. While the decision to marry someone of the same sex or to use contraception are truly personal choices that chiefly affect the individual in question (as well as other individuals who have freely consented to be a part of these decisions), choices about child rearing are choices imposed on an individual - a socially, politically, and economically powerless individual - by others. Framing choices about how one raises her children as individual rights of the same sort as the others that Justice Kennedy mentions inverts the concept of individual rights. It is indeed the antithesis of individual rights because it involves allowing some individuals state-backed power over other individuals.
I by no means intend to single out Justice Kennedy for this problematic statement. It reflects a mentality that is all too common among educated and intelligent individuals across the political spectrum. Nonetheless it is a deeply wrong-headed mentality.
With such a statement, Justice Kennedy highlights all the ways in which minors are viewed by the law and the wider culture as parental property and mere extensions of the adults in their lives without liberty and justice interests of their own worth protecting. Minors may have an interest in avoiding religious indoctrination foisted upon them by the adults in their lives. They may have an interest in avoiding the type of education their parents wish they would pursue. They may have an interest in making medical decisions their guardians disapprove of. They may have an interest in associating with individuals their family would prefer they not associate with. All of these possibilities are erased by Justice Kennedy's conflation of the individual right of someone to engage in sexual relations with the partner of their choosing, for example, and the right of a parent to force a lifestyle choice of any sort (like attending a certain school) upon their children without the child's autonomy interests being taken into consideration.
Choices about parenting are not "individual rights" of the sort that we cherish in this country and other free societies. They are a denial of the rights of the most powerless members of our society. Even if one does believe that children are best served by a certain level of paternalism (a position I object to but that is beyond the scope of this post) it is best that one be honest about his belief that this is what is best for a child and that he be willing to set more stringent parameters for when that assumption can be overridden as opposed to framing almost any choice a parent makes on behalf of another person as an "individual right."