The Problem with Parental Rights

Straw man arguments irritate me. As I write this, there are a number of threads over at Twitter about big government and parental rights mocking Republicans for their alleged hypocrisy of on the subject of gender affirming care (GAC). What inspires the threads are the many states rolling out laws protecting children from medical-industrial project to physically alter the bodies of vulnerable children from profit.

The recent actions of Florida Republicans have especially enraged woke progressives; Governor Ron DeSantis, a principal demon in the religion of Wokism, is uniquely triggering to the faithful. Like Trump, DeSantis’ existence robs folks of their capacity for reason. If parents have rights, the progressive argument goes, then don’t they have the right to submit their children to life-altering hormonal treatments and surgical procedures? Who is the government to tell parents they cannot submit their daughters to doctors for breast bud amputation or their sons for castration?

The argument is not only offered in bad faith; the problem is misrepresented. This is illustrated by a person wondering how GAC could be construed as killing or injuring a person, which was a question put to me recently.

We can look at the clinical data. There is the case of physicians killing Nathan Verhelst who begged them to on the grounds of “unbearable psychological suffering” after gender affirming surgery turned him a “monster” (his words, not mine). There is the case of the death from infection of one of the study participants in the Dutch transgender experiment, a 16-year-old who underwent vaginoplasty surgery (this is a procedure to create a faux-vagina) using part of his intestines, which were infected with E. coli.

The tools of female circumcision

But we could more generally ask, first, using an exact analogy, whether the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) constitutes an injury to the body, and, second, whether FGM is an injury depends on the ideological perspective that a priori legitimizes forms of injury by denying the injury.

To test the latter proposition, one should ask oneself if the practice of FGM is justified by ideological claims (cultural/religious) to which one does not subscribe. In other words, is FGM only an injury when one does not subscribe to the ideology justifying it?

The reality is that, depending on who is asked, FGM is not only a perfectly legitimate practice, but necessary. The practice of FGM, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, which involves the alteration or removal of female genitalia or some part thereof for cultural or religious reasons, reasons its opponents quickly note are non-medical, thus illustrates the problem.

FGM is practiced in many countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as in some immigrant communities in Europe and North America. Although the practice can be performed on women of any age, FGM is most commonly performed on girls between infancy and during and through puberty.

Some cultures see FGM as a rite of passage. Others see FGM as a way for women to conform to traditional gender roles. Crucially, it is the mothers and other members of the community of women in the society who often carry out the procedure. Many of those on whom the procedure is performed look forward to the moment their status will be elevated.

Those who oppose FGM insist that there are no health benefits to the procedure and, moreover, the procedure can cause a range of short- and long-term health problems, including severe pain, bleeding, infection, difficulty urinating, menstrual problems, infertility, and complications during childbirth. In some cases, FGM can lead to death.

For those who have any awareness of the realities of GAC, all of the problems with FGM will sound familiar. So is opposition to FGM condemned by prefix or suffix? Is it an “anti” or a “phobia”? Or is it a recognition that belief can be so powerful that it moves people to cut off parts of a girl’s genitalia, not only putting her at risk of health problems but also possibly robbing her of the ability to fully enjoy sex for the remainder of her life?

As the reader knows, FGM is widely recognized as a human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. The United Nations and many governments, as well as numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have launched campaigns to raise awareness of the harms of FGM and to work with communities to end the practice.

Those who oppose this practice are quick to stress that an understanding the cultural context of FGM is vital not for legitimizing the practice but for developing effective interventions to prevent the practice. Indeed. This is why I share the cultural and religious reasons those who claim to care about those they mutilate continue to mutilate them: I want to make the obvious point that it is equally as important to understand the cultural context of GAC.

After all, so-called medical science is a cultural practice. It is a cultural practice underpinned by the imperative of the medical-industrial complex to generate profits for its shareholders and the high salaries commanded by those who administer the service. If you study the reason GAC is “necessary,” you will see that the ideology behind the practice is as sketchy as the ideology behind FGM.

There are many other examples testifying to this reality. Swishing out or disconnecting the frontal lobe of a child to calm him (a procedure called lobotomy) is no different than the practice of boring a hole in a man’s skull to release the demon that makes him wild (a procedure called trephining). Both are justified by ideology. Slapping the label “medicine” on the practice doesn’t change anything.

It is vital that those thinking about the world recognize that there is only one form of knowledge about the world that is objective, and this is the rational and empirical practices of scientific humanism. Don’t be confused by the jargon of so-called “medical science.” Medical science is a form of scientism, meaning that it is ideology that dresses itself in scientific jargon. It is primarily the expression of corporate power.

In the capitalist context, “medicine” is not based on science but shaped by the pursuit of profits, which means that justifications surrounding its practice are tailored to the imperative of capitalist accumulation. This is why I call it the “medical-industrial complex” in my writings: just as the military-industrial complex uses the rhetoric of national defense a cover for making money, so the medical-industrial complex uses the rhetoric of health case as a cover for making money. One finds the same thing with extractive industries, and so forth. The imperative to accumulate capitalism bends knowledge to its needs—that is, the profit motive, rooted in the exploitation of human beings, their labor and their desire (which is manufactured), corrupts knowledge.

To be sure, there are other ways of knowing that are unscientific, even antiscientific. Religion is unscientific. Quasi-religious ideologies, such a queer theory, are also unscientific. Queer theory is derived from the postmodernist epistemic, which depicts science not merely as one way of knowing, but as a no more valid way of knowing than, say, indigenous ways of knowing. More than this, science is a work of evil, as Western civilization raised it to its highest level and Western civilization is white supremacist.

Once science is made to stand equally or in an inferior position to other ways of knowing, then crackpot notions of gender as advanced by queer theory become perceived as viable. The medical-industrial complex, the type of system always on the prowl for legitimizing ideologies, has no problem with taking up the ideas of queer theory to build its transgender services.

One might complain that GAC is no more valid than FGM, but they will be reminded that no knowledge system is valid because there are just a myriad ways of knowing. Given that any way of knowing is at least just as valid, the lived experience of a person suffering from a personality disorder becomes a valid mode of knowledge production and practice based in that production. This explains why the Internet is chockfull of individuals celebrating their disorders. The medical-industrial complex is all too eager to take advantage of disordered individuals.

There is a lot of tweeting about how parents could transition their children. Some diagnose the problem as Munchausen’s-by-proxy. Munchausen’s syndrome is psychological condition in which a person fabricates or induces symptoms of illness in themselves for attention and for project virtue in the sick role. Munchausen’s-by-proxy is where the mother develops the condition and fabricates or induces symptoms of illness in her child. The mother of reality TV star Jazz Jennings is held up as an example of this. But why does this have to be a disorder? Are Muslims disordered? They mutilate the penises of their boys. Do those who practice FGM mutilate the genitalia of there girls because they are disordered? They do it because they are signaling virtue. They are marking the body for tribal identification. It’s a primitive impulse. The religion of Queer Theory apes Islam.

I don’t know a single Republican who believes government should play no role to play in protecting children. Maybe these people exist, but they are too few to be detectable and, if detectable, too few to matter. Certainly the polls don’t indicate this.

The actual question is not whether the government should have a role to play vis-à-vis children but what the nature of that role should be. Should parents be the primary guardians of their children? Or should the state raise children?

That’s the broad question—and if you’re in favor of the latter, then ask yourself who put the fascist in your head. Indeed, the state already plays a major role in socializing children, and the failure to see the problem with that suggests an inadequate concern about the problem of totalitarianism.

We do indeed find parents who believe the government should stay out of some medical decisions, such as the routine vaccination of their children. They are often portrayed as viewing vaccine mandates as a violation of individual freedom and choice (which of course they are) and arguing that parents should have the right to make certain medical decisions for their children without government interference. However, the desire to protect children from vaccine mandates is a safeguarding action that is quite different from the desire of parents to submit their children to unnecessary and potentially harmful medical intervention.

Despite the anthropological fact that the concrete or empirical form of family and its role in society has varied across time and cultures, the family has been since time immemorial the foundation of the social order. In ancient societies, the family was the basic unit of social organization. In Rome, the family or “gens” was an extended kinship group that formed the basis of economic, political, and social life. In ancient Greece, as well as in traditional Chinese society, the family, albeit more narrowly conceived, was the primary unit of social organization. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the family was the unit of economic production, with each family responsible for producing goods and services for their own use and for trade with others. In modernity, the family has continued to play a central role in society. Industrialization and urbanization led to the nuclear family becoming the dominant form of family organization in many societies, a development that only made the role of the immediate family more central to the upbringing of children as individuals, albeit the functional specialization of institutions, such as the system of public education, undermining this primary function, bringing us to the problem we are today facing. In all these cases, however, the family was the primary source of social and emotional support—as it should be.

Despite the centrality of the family in history, there are those who argue for the abolition of the family on the grounds that it is an oppressive system. Abolishing the nuclear family was part of the now deleted manifesto of the Black Lives Matter movement (see Disrupting the Western-Prescribed Nuclear Family Requirement for my discussion of this). And Black Lives Matter, as is Antifa, a trans activist organization.

Queer theorists have long criticized the family as a coercive heteronormative institution that restricts individual freedom and reinforces social inequalities. Judith Butler argues in her book Gender Trouble that the belief that the family is a natural and universal social institution is ahistorical; the family is a historically contingent and culturally specific institution (Butler has a gift for presenting the obvious as discovery). Butler’s argument echoes Michel Foucault, who was more explicit in depicting the family as a manifestation of oppressive power relations. Likewise, in her book, Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick emphasizes that the family is a mechanism for enforcing heteronormative ideals, as if heteronormativity is relative and an imposition, rather than an expression of species-being.

These views have not remained contained in the realm of crackpot academic theory. The controversy over gender-affirming care, a form of medical treatment said to support the physical and psychological well-being of transgender individuals, which includes a range of interventions, from hormone therapy and surgery, represents the struggle between progressive forces seeking to legitimize the control of children by the state over against parents who mean to protect their children from harm.

Parents object to gender-affirming care for a variety of reasons, not only for religious or cultural reasons, but out of concern for the efficacy and safety of these interventions. However, governments in the West, including the United States, Canada, and some European countries, amid increasing recognition of the rights of transgender individuals, including the right to gender-affirming care, establish laws and policies using the language of human rights and social justice, while skirting questions of medical ethics, that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, which in turn are used to undermine parental authority.

The parental rights movement is not an objection to public safety, the safeguarding of children, etc. It is an objection to the imposition of an expansive notion of the state as parens patriae, i.e., the state as father, beyond its duty to defend the nation from external threats and to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I have yet to meet an advocate of parental rights who thinks, for example, that FGM is appropriate.

The belief that the state and its administrators and technocrats should keep vital information about their children’s health from parents is one of the chief indicators that the totalitarian logic of bureaucratic collectivism has substantially colonized the lifeworld of the people of the West. The parental rights movement has emerged to reestablish the proper boundaries around the state. As a libertarian, I am all for that. As a morally decent human being, I must be for safeguarding children. Where are you?

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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