Category Archives: Children

A Brave New World (2): Selling Human Body Parts

Last week I highlighted the horror of euthanasia in Belgium, where physicians are now responsible for 5% of all deaths. This week we have the horror in America of a federally funded organization selling the body parts of aborted babies on the sly. You can watch the chilling video here.

As I argued last week, this is the product of a form of liberalism that emphasizes the dignity, not of every human being, but of every “person” who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. The unborn obviously do not qualify here. This sort of liberalism also increasingly denies that human beings have any obligations toward their creator. As long as you don’t hurt another person you are free to do what you want, even to another human being. This is Secularist Liberalism.

Selling body parts has a particular horror to it, but it is really no more abhorrent than the murder of the unborn is to begin with. An inconsistent society desires to permit the latter, while banning the former, but there will always be a few consistent individuals who are determined to push the limits. Is it an accident that the Huffington Post chooses this week to run an article claiming that 95% of women who have abortions do not regret it?

This presents all the more occasion for Christians to advocate a different kind of liberalism, one rooted in the Christian tradition. As I wrote last week,

Christian Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single individual human being by virtue of his or her creation in the image of God. Human life is sacred, according to Christian Liberalism, because each human being has been created in love for a relationship with God. Not only should each person’s life and welfare be protected and promoted, but each person should be taught how to find happiness in relationship to a loving God. Regardless of a person’s worldly circumstances, Christianity teaches, she can find her true destiny in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.

According to this ethic euthanasia and abortion are off limits and should be prohibited by the state. Institutions and practices fundamental to human well-being – such as marriage, education, religion, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.

This sort of liberalism still has currency. The more Secularist Liberalism leads modern western society into a moral dystopia, the more concerned citizens will be open to the Christian alternative. In short, we increasingly have unprecedented opportunities to draw the estranged back to the gospel by witnessing to the creation of every single human being in the image of God.


Spoiling your children, and the decline of civil society

It turns out that spoiling kids, as our grandmothers told us, is actually bad for them. It’s also bad for civil society. It’s one thing financially to assist your children as they move through the stages of life, all the while training them in their work ethic, responsibility, and healthy ambition. It’s a whole other thing to teach them that they are the center of the world, the deserving beneficiaries of their parents (and their society’s) largesse.

Here are two bits of evidence (HT: Via Meadia). First, researchers have reported in Science that China’s one child policy has not been good for the character of the country’s youth.

We document that China’s One-Child Policy, one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth, has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.

Walter Russell Mead writes,

It’s been pointed out many times before that the ranks of only children are large and growing, and that they are outnumbered by, and thus hard pressed to care for, parents and grandparents. Now we find that they are also less inclined to follow the Confucian tradition’s dictates of respect and responsibility for one’s elders. Indeed, this is why the leadership has already enacted laws forcing selfish children to visit their parents regularly or face legal consequences.

The Second bit of evidence? The New York Times reports that students whose parents pay for their college education perform much less well academically.

Dr. [Laura] Hamilton suggested that students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others.

“Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment,” she said. “Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once. I wondered if that was nationally true, which led me to this quantitative study, which found that it is.”

Again, Mead comments,

It’s hardly a surprise that 18-year-olds will take advantage of a fully subsidized four-year adventure through parties, booze, and whatever other joys college brings. Keeping young people in a bubble where they don’t have to work for their own money (and by work we don’t mean cushy internships) is a form of child abuse, depriving kids of the character and capability-building experiences they need to become responsible and effective adults.

Of course, by analogy we might draw some national and social implications from this. I’ll leave that to you wise readers.

Homeschooling on the Left and the Right: beyond public and Christian schools

Last week’s issue of The Economist includes a brief report on the phenomenal growth of homeschooling in the past thirty years in the United States. According to the report, approximately 2 million children are currently being homeschooled, roughly the same number as are attending charter schools.

Homeschooling is one of those issues on which folks on the right and the left often find more in common with each other than they do with those in the middle.

Although home schooling started on the counter-cultural left, the conservative right has done most to promote it, abandoning public schools for being too secular and providing no moral framework. Today the ranks of home-schoolers are overwhelmingly Christian, and 78% of parents attend church frequently….

Home schooling is not exclusively white and Christian. In 2007 a report found that Muslim children were one of the fastest-growing groups; black-home schoolers are around 4% of the total and comprised 61,000 children. The super-wealthy, and parents who must move around a lot, are also taking up home schooling in increasing numbers because of its flexibility.

In certain Christian circles homeschooling has actually sparked significant opposition because it is viewed as a threat to Christian schools. Some Dutch Reformed communities, for instance, have gone so far as to refuse ecclesiastical office to parents who homeschool their children. In fact, while the movement in general owes much to Christian skepticism towards developments in public schools, many homeschooling parents are just as motivated by their frustration with Christian schools. As far as they are concerned, many of these schools are neither as Christian as they claim, nor do they offer anything like the rigorous education the parents are seeking.

How do homeschoolers do?

Academically, home-schooled children seem to do well; they enter higher education in proportions similar to those who are conventionally educated, and score as well or better on college entrance exams. Nor, on the evidence of Mr Murphy’s book, are they socially backward: most seem confident, assured and well-adjusted. They also have fewer behavioural problems.

It is also the case that in many instances public schools have been far more cooperative with homeschoolers than have Christian schools.

Public schools can do little but co-operate these days, and most offer access to school facilities, websites, books and other materials. Some even allow home-schoolers to take specialist courses—allowing the school to tap into a portion of public financing they would otherwise lose entirely.

Flexible cooperation between public schools, charter schools, Christian schools and “home schools,” each of which may be a legitimate option for parents under varying circumstances, seems sensible to me. The United States stands to benefit from the decentralization and democratization of education, both because of what this does for competition and educational improvement and because of the pluralistic solution it offers in a nation that has thus far found that the only possible way to be post-Protestant is to be thoroughly secular. We don’t all have to do this the same way.

Are Christians really committed to religious liberty? Even if it includes Muslims?

As I noted in yesterday’s post, conservative Christians tend to support programs of school choice, whether in the form of charter schools or voucher programs, whether the end result is private schools or homeschooling. I have my own leanings in this area, and my wife and I have our settled convictions on how we want to educate our own children. That said, we recognize that this is an area of Christian liberty. I was educated largely in private Christian schools, though for a few years I was home-schooled as well. My wife, on the other hand, was educated in public schools, her mother was a public school teacher, and her father was a public school principal.

Whatever my own convictions, I recognize that we have a national commitment to ensuring that all children can receive an education, and as far as I am aware, every single state constitution in this country commits its government to ensure that this happens. That means that while I may think a particular means of achieving this is unwise, as a responsible citizen I should not entirely check out of the debates about how to achieve it in a better way. That’s why, in my previous post, I argued that the move toward charter schools is a good thing. I was not saying that I think it is necessarily the best thing.

What is striking to me, however, is the way in which some Christian conservatives have begun to question the practice of home-schooling, or to oppose voucher programs, out of fear that other religious groups may also take advantage of these means of education. These concerned Christians, it seems (and there are concerned nonbelievers among them as well), are fine with liberty for Christian parents when it comes to educating their children, but they do not want to see Muslim parents have the same liberty.

To provide one explicit example from the state of Louisiana, from the Mobile News,

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Watson, says she had no idea that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s educational system might mean taxpayer support of Muslim schools.

“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” the District 64 Representative said Monday.

“I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges said.

Hodges mistakenly assumed that “religious” meant “Christian.”

HB976, now signed into law as Act 2, proposed, among other things, a voucher program allowing state educational funds to be used to send students to schools run by religious groups.

Now let’s get one thing straight. The reason why voucher programs are constitutional is because they do not fund religious schools. They give money to parents, and they allow those parents to spend that money wherever they see fit, whether or not that is at a religious school, a nonreligious school, or a home school. The money in vouchers goes to people, not to institutions.

To be sure, when the government does things for the welfare of people, those people might actually live in a religious way. They might actually follow the teachings of their religious tradition. I may choose to use the interstate to get to church on Sunday. I may just donate my tax credit to the local church to help pay the salary of a missionary. This is not the establishment of religion. It’s called religious liberty.

So why do Christians want this for themselves, but not for Muslims? I understand the concerns about radical Islamism and schools that foster terrorism. I agree that all education needs to be regulated and monitored by the state at a certain (minimal) level. But let’s face it, most Muslims are not radical Islamists, let alone terrorists. If they were, life in this country would be very different from the way it is now.

Interestingly, a related issue has arisen in Germany where a court in Cologne actually ruled that if performed for religious purposes male circumcision is illegal when performed on children under 14 years of age. Yes, in the land of the Holocaust the fundamental religious rite of Jewish identity has been declared illegal.

Here again, of course, Muslims are the cause of concern. We have all heard the horror stories about genital mutilation (female circumcision), and however uncommon that procedure might be among most Muslims, however different it might be from male circumcision, in our terror of the Muslims we are willing to give up religious liberty itself. I agree that there is no such thing as the religious liberty to physically harm another human being. Basic human rights trump religious tradition at certain points.

But these are exceptions to the general rule of religious liberty, not the norm. And I worry when we seem so willing to deny the most basic religious liberties to those religious practitioners whom we fear, even when we have no rational reason for doing so.

Where are we going with this? As Christians, as westerners, are we committed to religious liberty or not? Has religious liberty just been a cover for Christian liberty, for a version of a Judeo-Christian establishment that we cannot now extend to others?

We need to remember that when we support the suppression of religious liberty for others we threaten our own liberty as well. We need to figure out whether we are genuinely committed to this fundamental human right or not. And if we are committed to it, we need to learn to stand by it, wherever the chips may fall.

Reforming education in a genuinely liberal way: the success of charter schools

People often think of the debates about charter schools, vouchers, and public education in terms of the general opposition between the left and the right in American politics, and anecdotally there is some good reason for that. Teachers’ unions, a typically left-wing constituency, vigorously oppose charter schools and vouchers while conservative Christians, a typically right-wing constituency, are often quite suspicious of heavy-handed government involvement in education.

The reality , however, is that supporting education reform by means of expanding choice, handing schools over to private management, and giving kids the right to attend the school best suited to their needs is a decidedly liberal cause. Despite typical associations of the words liberal and conservative, it is the public school system that is the old, bureaucratic mess dragging down American kids, and it is innovation geared towards liberty and equality in education that shapes the push for charter schools and vouchers. Ironically it was George W. Bush who greatly expanded the federal role in education through his No Child Left Behind legislation, and it is Barack Obama who has gutted that bad law of its significance by giving half the country permission to ignore it. What’s more, it is “liberal European” countries like Sweden and the United Kingdom that have demonstrated the great success of charter schools.

The Economist reports,

This revolution is now spreading round the world. In Britain academies, also free from local-authority control, were pioneered by the last Labour government… But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has turbocharged their growth, and has launched “free schools”, modelled on a successful Swedish experiment, which have even more independence. By the end of this year half of all British schools will be academies or free schools. Free schools are too new for their performance to be judged; in academies, though, results for GCSEs (the exams pupils take at 15 or 16) are improving twice as fast as those in the state sector as a whole.

What makes charter schools so successful are the very same things that make them so controversial. They represent a privatization of education, they bypass the powerful teachers’ unions, and they vary in their success. Bypassing bureaucratic rigidity and stagnation, they make the sort of experimentation and competition possible that may not always work in every instance, but that in the long run are the surest route to both freedom and success.

[T]he virtue of experiments is that you can learn from them; and it is now becoming clear how and where charter schools work best. Poor pupils, those in urban environments and English-language learners fare better in charters. In states that monitor them carefully and close down failing schools quickly, they work best. And one great advantage is that partly because most are free of union control, they can be closed down more easily if they are failing…. It is pretty clear now that giving schools independence—so long as it is done in the right way, with the right monitoring, regulation and safeguards from the state—works

To be sure, without that proper regulation and without necessary safeguards charter schools are less successful. In another report on the same issue The Economist describes the varying levels of success in terms of diverging state approaches to charter schools. As one study performed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University suggests,

the variation in quality can be traced to the governing legislation behind the schools. Margaret Raymond, director of Credo, points to Arizona’s terrible results in 2009, which were the result of lax screening of those who were allowed to set up charter schools, and no serious reviews thereafter. Ohio, where most charters are worse than the traditional schools, gained a reputation as the “Wild West” of charter schools because it exercised almost no oversight.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, has had excellent results and is strict about the schools it allows to operate; the state will step in and close an underperforming school at short notice. Caps on the number of charters in a state drag down performance as much as lax oversight, because they cramp the diversification of the market and discourage investment. Bad laws make bad charter schools.

The problem with the public school system is that it has always been guided by the assumption that the purpose of education is to shape and mold children according to the national interest as determined by the cultural elites, whether those elites were Protestant Christians, as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, or secularist liberals, as in more recent years. Those who do not want to give up on government administered education always fear the fragmentation and diversity that will result from freedom in education. In that sense, the public schools are a quintessential conservative, state-interest oriented institution, whereas charter schools and vouchers represent the decidedly liberal approach that places the individual – in this case the child – first.

Here The Economist gets it right: “Charter schools have been successful because they offer freedom to shape the school to the pupils, rather than the other way round.” Yet on this point the rich countries of the world have a lot of work to do.

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

As I have argued repeatedly on this blog, there are few things more central to justice than ensuring the basic welfare of our children. Giving our children a chance to succeed doesn’t simply involve preserving the life of the unborn or building stable families. It also means allowing them to attend schools that can actually teach them. And once again, it seems, liberty and equality point to the best way forward.

It’s better to have same-sex marriage than to privatize it: preserving marriage as a public commitment

In a controversial op-ed in the New York Times prominent traditional marriage defender David Blankenhorn has given up his opposition to same-sex marriage. I was not planning on commenting on this piece, but a friend urged me to consider it more seriously. I want to make a few comments with reference to those thoughtful conservatives who think government should simply get out of the business of marriage and leave it to private organizations, as well as to those thoughtful liberals who think supporting the basic institution of marriage is more important than defining it traditionally.

Blankenhorn’s op-ed is striking because he begins by reaffirming the basic tenants of his defense of traditional marriage. Few critics of same-sex marriage could make the argument as well as Blankenhorn does.

I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.

Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.

At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.

Well put. And Blankenhorn declares that he still believes all of this. So why is he now reversing his position on same-sex marriage? Simply put, it seems that he is disillusioned with the traditional marriage cause because it is not making these sorts of arguments and it is not making its opposition to same-sex marriage part of a serious effort to strengthen marriage generally. Rather, it is relying on anti-homosexual bigotry.

I had hoped that the gay marriage debate would be mostly about marriage’s relationship to parenthood. But it hasn’t been. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that I and others have made that argument, and that we have largely failed to persuade. In the mind of today’s public, gay marriage is almost entirely about accepting lesbians and gay men as equal citizens. And to my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.

I had also hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.

I have to say, there is something in Blankenhorn’s argument here that resonates with me. What is the point of being opposed to same-sex marriage if more than half of our children are born out of wedlock? Why waste so much money and energy on this issue if those resources could actually be directed to strengthening marriage and recommitting ourselves to ensuring that all children are raised by their two biological parents?

In short, and here I agree with Blankenhorn, it is better to affirm same-sex marriage and save the institution as a public commitment than to oppose same-sex marriage by advocating its privatization. There is simply too much at stake. Too many of our children are having their lives destroyed by selfish adults committed to sex, pleasure, and having their own way rather than to caring for others in the context of justice and accountability. It is a crime against the next generation to allow the institution of marriage to be destroyed (i.e., abandoned by the government, whose responsibility is to ensure a basic modicum of justice for the most vulnerable members of our society) for the sake of purism. Marriage is absolutely fundamental to the survival and development of both individuals and of society generally. It is patently unjust for Christians or liberals to damage the public commitment to the institution of marriage by defending its privatization.

Why Pro-Life is Not Enough: government’s responsibility to promote the family

The New York Times has a story discussing how Mississippi might become the first state not to have an abortion clinic. Although the pro-life movement failed to pass the controversial personhood amendment not long ago, a more procedural approach is cutting the ground out from under the state’s only abortion clinic.

The law [going into effect on July 1], which was passed this spring by large margins in the State Legislature, requires all physicians associated with an abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

It is no secret that the physicians who do the majority of the work at the J.W.H.O. do not currently meet this requirement; three out of four of them, including Dr. Parker, do not even live in Mississippi.

Nine other states have local admitting requirements for abortion providers, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights. But in none of those states did such a rule effectively end abortion, and that will be the crux of the legal fight. Mississippi political leaders have said the law is intended to safeguard the health of women, but they have not been circumspect about the larger goal.

There are many reasons to be pleased about these developments in Mississippi. Contrary to what many conservative Christians seem to think, the pro-life movement is succeeding across America, and we are in a far better position today than we were in just after Roe v. Wade. That said, little of this matters if we do not ensure that children are raised in a context of love and justice. Quality of life, not simply biological life, is the goal. But in Mississippi, that is hardly a foregone conclusion.

Mississippi is also the poorest state in the country and has the highest birth rate among teenagers, and the second-highest infant mortality rate, according to statistics compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than half of births here occur out of wedlock. Of the 2,297 women who had abortions in Mississippi in 2010, according to the State Department of Health, most were unmarried, most already had at least one child and more than three-quarters were black.

This is nothing short of a disaster, and it demonstrates why the state needs to be involved in promoting marriage and the family. The poverty, decline of marriage, illegitimacy, and racial dynamic are all closely related. If you don’t think this is an issue of basic justice with which the state should be concerned you might want to reconsider your understanding of justice.

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