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Who's in Charge Of the Family?

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NOT so long ago, ``Father Knows Best'' served not only as the title of a popular TV show but also as a guiding principle of family life. Fathers and mothers were judged to be the people usually most capable of deciding what was best for their children.

In recent years that assumption has weakened as schools, courts, hospitals, and law-enforcement agencies have exerted increasing power over the family. Cases involving such issues as contraception, birth, adoption, and education have forced parents to cede control to outside authorities. The troubling new approach seems to be: The State Knows Best.

What would Robert Young say?

Now, in one of the first reversals of that trend, an appellate court in New York has reaffirmed the right of parents to make decisions regarding their children's behavior. Last week the court ruled that New York City's public high schools cannot give condoms to minors against the wishes of parents. The decision overturned a two-year-old program offering condoms on demand to teenage students.

The court ruled that the policy violates the constitutional rights of parents. It also held that the program violates state laws requiring parental consent for health services for minor children. Many cities with similar school-based condom-distribution plans allow parents to opt out of programs.

Supporters are hailing the New York decision as a victory for parents' rights. They believe it is the first major appellate court ruling involving condoms in schools.

A second parental-rights success story comes from Chicago. Last month authorities in Cook County, Ill., ordered a pregnant woman to undergo a Caesarean section because her doctor feared a natural delivery would endanger her baby. The woman refused, citing her fundamentalist religious faith and personal reasons. The Illinois Appellate Court refused to order the surgery, and the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Last week the woman delivered an apparently healthy son without any surgical intervention.

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