Parental Rights: The New Wedge Issue

If there were a recipe for creating a new conservative culture-wars issue, it might look something like this: Start with the United Nations, fold in the prospect of an expanded role for government in children’s lives, add some unfortunate court decisions, then toss in Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton.

And indeed, when House Republicans recently found themselves with all these ingredients at hand, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) started pre-heating the oven.

Hoekstra last week introduced a bill in the House to amend the U.S. Constitution to permanently “enshrine” in American society an inviolable set of parents’ rights. The bill had 70 co-sponsors, all Republicans, including Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Minority Leader John A. Boehner.

The bill, said Hoekstra, is intended to stem the “slow erosion” of parents’ rights and to circumvent the effects of a United Nations treaty he believes “clearly undermines parental rights in the United States.”

The treaty to which he refers is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a 20-year-old document signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 but never ratified. The treaty sets international standards for government obligations to children in areas that range from protection from abuse and exploitation to ensuring a child’s right to free expression.

While a treaty that seeks to protect children may sound innocuous, its opponents, such as Michael Farris, the Christian conservative founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, see in it a dystopian future in which “Parents would no longer be able to administer reasonable spankings to their children”; “A child’s ‘right to be heard’ would allow him (or her) to seek governmental review of every parental decision with which the child disagreed”; and “Children would have the ability to choose their own religion while parents would only have the authority to give their children advice about religion,” as he puts it on his website parentalrights.org.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child emerged from relative obscurity most recently when, during the presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama replied to a question about the treaty by saying he found it “embarrassing” that the United States stood with Somalia – the only other U.N. member that has not ratified the treaty — and promised to review it as president, and then again in the confirmation hearing for Ambassador Susan Rice, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pressed the then-nominee on the treaty’s status.

“[H]ow can we be proud of our country when we haven't ratified?” Boxer asked. “In this case, the only other country, as I understand it, that hasn't ratified is Somalia. OK — excuse me. This is America. We're standing with Somalia. What is happening? What has happened?”

Rice replied that it was a “shame” that the United States is “keeping company” with Somalia, adding that “there can be no doubt that the president-elect and Secretary Clinton and I share a commitment to the objectives of this treaty and will take it up as an early question.”

That was enough to raise the hackles of parents’ rights advocates and sympathetic legislators, but it was far from a promise that the treaty would be sent to the Senate, or that it would ultimately be ratified; Rice also told Boxer that it was a “complicated treaty,” and that the State Department would need to take a close look at how to “manage the challenges of domestic implementation.”

She wasn’t kidding. 

By its nature, the treaty combines two “third-rail” issues for conservatives — the implications of international treaties for U.S. sovereignty, and the role of the United Nations in U.S. affairs. “Opposing the U.N has been a rallying cryof the right for decades,” notes Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

And then there’s the issue of parental rights, which has long been simmering on the right — in the mid-’90s, the idea that the government was infringing upon parents’ domain became a focus of the Christian Coalition and gained currency with those like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who introduced federal legislation to protect parents’ rights — but which might, given enough heat, come to a mainstream boil.

Indeed, with the treaty back in play, Hoekstra and Co. have begun laying the groundwork for just that possibility.

There is, of course, the legislation, but there is also a link on Hoekstra’s congressional home page that now takes interested parties to parentsrights.us, a site that provides pithy talking points about the amendment and the treaty in its FAQs section, a “contact Congress” option, and an opportunity to “show support” for the amendment, which had garnered 166 backers at last count.

Opponents of the treaty, such as Farris, who helped craft Hoekstra’s amendment, frequently cite cases in which government has run roughshod over parents’ rights in the past as evidence that no good will come of ratification.

“It is really about government empowerment; it has nothing to do ultimately with the rights of children,” he says. “It just fits in so well with everything else that is going on in Washington right now. They’re trying to run everything.”

Advocates counter that 193 countries have managed to take the plunge without catastrophic result; that the treaty is supported by groups ranging from the Girl Scouts to the Christian Children’s Fund; and that opponents both overestimate and misunderstand the treaty’s purpose and likely impact.

“The Committee on the Rights of the Child has been unfairly characterized as a kind of Big Brother apparatus, where countries could be shamed and penalized, but that was not the intent of it,” says Meg Gardinier, chairwoman of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Of the treaty’s likely domestic impact, she says, “I think it could make a modest, thoughtful inroad in this country,” says Gardinier. “I don’t think it's going to move mountains.”

The truth is that, as Rice noted, the treaty is complex, and, as with the law in general, the implications of a given provision can’t be fully understood until it is road tested in reality.

Practically speaking, that means that whatever the treaty’s merits or risks, it is difficult to say a given outcome is impossible, but relatively easy to envision extreme “doomsday” scenarios — or to offer up real cases in which bad decisions have been made as evidence that the worst will result. The rebuttal arguments are frequently nuanced and less viscerally satisfying, which makes defenders’ position even more difficult.

Notes Baruch College political science professor Douglas Muzzio: “Nuance isn’t the culture warrior’s forte. And in fact, the lack of nuance is their major weapon.”

“It’s a no-win kind of debate for the advocates,” agrees Zelizer, who believes treaty supporters could find themselves caught off guard.

Conservatives, he notes, are “looking for issues. And if this looks like this is an issue they can hook onto, they’ll turn this into a bigger issue than human-rights advocates ever expected it would be.”

When asked what he thought the parental rights amendment’s chances for passage were, Hoekstra said, “If there’s no major court cases or anything that highlight this [issue], it’ll be very slow progress thorough Congress, and nothing will happen this year.”
However, he noted, “If the Senate tries to bring up the U.N. Treaty of the Child,” he says, “it will bring this front and center.”

And if that happens, he adds, “we’ll be ready.”
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