In Defence of Parental Automony

Parents, in normal circumstances, are the proper judges of what is in the child’s best interests, even where those decisions are made as a result of a non-mainstream world view and have serious consequences.


In the Middle Ages, the accepted view tended to be that infants that died without being baptised would either go to hell or fail to attain heaven and end up in limbo (1).

The intellectual background to this is interesting, but it is not a view that seems to be widely held now among Western Christians, probably for a variety of reasons both good and bad.

However mistaken we may now suppose the belief, many people at the time sincerely and rationally held that the infant’s welfare, and often its eternal destiny, rested on its being baptised.

A natural consequence of this belief was the desire to make sure all infants were baptised, including the children of Jewish parents. It makes complete sense, in that world view, to argue that for the sake of the children’s welfare, the children of “unbelievers” should be baptised against the will of their parents.

Aquinas insisted in the Summa Theologicae, that in fact non-Christian parents had the right to refuse baptism for their children. (2).

In modern thought, Aquinas emerges from this debate as the hero, the defender of human rights as we would see them, though his reasons for defending these rights are not the reasons a modern liberal would have.

But, thinking around this, I have come to think that the same argument, in modern times, ought to apply to the right of parents to choose what medical treatment a child has.

The easiest example is the controversial one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions. I completely disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the point of blood transfusions: I believe it is bad theology in every way. But I don’t think the rest of us have the right to impose our world view on them – or on their children before their children are of an age to decide for themselves that they wish to consent to the mainstream world view and not that of their parents.

Just as the people of the middle ages believed that children’s welfare was best served by baptism, we think that their welfare is best served by having a blood transfusion when that is medically indicated. Just as it was wrong for the people of the Middle Ages to try to impose baptism on the children of those parents who did not think their children’s welfare best served by baptism, it is reasonable to argue that it is equally wrong to impose such medical treatment on the children of parents who do not think their welfare is best served by it.

It is an issue of world view. The parents do not believe this is ethical medical treatment, they believe it will compromise their child’s access to salvation, and they therefore do not believe their children will benefit from having it (3). This can only be challenged by demonstrating a different theology/world view, either that of the mainstream Christian churches (which would interpret those passages in scripture in a very different way) or that of the secular world, in putting the saving of earthly life before any other consideration (except a few issues regarding respecting other people’s rights (4)). The notion that a person’s biological life should be saved at almost any cost is a world view conviction. It is not a necessary or universally held belief; indeed, Christianity rejects it in theory in holding that one should die rather than deny Christ. To refuse to respect the ordinary medical decisions of parents because we don’t agree with their world view is difficult to justify within liberalism (5).

It is true that I don’t share much of the liberal understanding, as I have a world view which I believe to be incompatible with the individualism on which liberalism is based, and I hold that liberalism is rather deficient in explanatory power, but my theories give similar answers regarding personal freedom on matters of this sort (6). (In any case, it is possible to argue that a theory to which you don’t subscribe is being internally inconsistent according to its own principles).

Parents do a tough job, often under very difficult circumstances, practically and emotionally. Deciding what is in a child’s best interests, even in normal circumstances, is not easy. Courts and doctors are not infallible (7) any more than medieval theologians were, even within their own subject matter. They are certainly not infallible when it comes to questions of world view, which are not their expertise. To insist that children should be given medical treatment contrary to the parents’ wishes, where the parents have not forfeited their natural authority by deliberate abuse or malice towards the child, is to create a situation where children are regarded by society as detached from their families in a worrying way.

This is perhaps easier to illustrate in contexts other than medical autonomy. I remember an article in my council magazine that talked about wanting more children to have the chance to live with their families. Or people comment on the merits or otherwise of “giving parents more authority”. The assumption behind both those ways of thinking is that authority over the children does not primarily and automatically belong to the parents, but to representatives of the nation (local councillors, teachers, social workers), who have the authority to delegate it to parents if they so choose, and not if they don’t. Did anyone actually intend that, and if so, have they really thought through what it means?

While I have no precise answers as to when it is legitimate (8), I am not arguing that there is no situation in which a judge can overrule parents or a child be taken away from an abusive family. I do think there comes a point where the natural authority of the parents is forfeited by its misuse, and in that case, the child is a person in the wider community, and we have the duty to go to its aid, just as we would if their parents were absent through death or mentally incapacitated by illness. And I appreciate that the people involved in wanting to give medical treatment, or wanting to take a child away from a family, are desperately keen on looking after the child, and are not motivated by any ulterior motive.

However, I think that, among other things, we need to keep the stolen generation and the forced baptism of the children of non-Christian parents before our eyes as a society when considering what it is right to do and not do. The fact that the best interests of the child properly come first, over and above any individual rights of the parents in the child, does not in itself entitle us to appoint ourselves, or the nation state and its representatives, as the primary judges and defenders of what those best interests are. Parents are, under all normal circumstances, the proper judge of a minor child’s best interests. Believing we are right, or even actually being right in a particular case, does not entitle us to impose our decision on the child instead.

I don’t want to pretend the question is easy or simple; I have every respect for the fact that people come honestly to different conclusions on this matter for good reasons. However,  despite the fact that it is radical, I have come to think that parents having a different world view, and/or a different idea of what will best serve the child’s welfare, is not, on its own, something that entitles our society to overrule their normal autonomy to say yes or no to medical treatment for their child, and that we should, socially and legally, respect the medical autonomy of these parents unless there is some other reason not to do so.



1.This gives a very wide range of possibilities as to the actual unpleasantness of their fate, complicated by the fact that Heaven, Hell, and similar, are not final destinations in Christianity (at least, not in a disembodied state), though in some ages this slips out of the intellectual picture. See: for the history, note, however, that it is not up to date: John Donne’s comments on the subject, interestingly, are very much in the “baptism is the normal means of grace but we can’t limit God’s power to it and claim he can’t save without it” line. (John Donne, 1572-1631 was an Anglican theologian; The Oxford Authors: John Donne, edited by John Carey, Oxford University Press 1990, page 328).

2. (Note about reading Aquinas: he writes in an argumentative form, starting with arguments for the view he doesn’t hold; his own position is stated under the subheadings: “on the contrary” and “I answer that”).

3. This mostly comes from my memories of a conversation I had with someone who knocked on my door some years ago. See also and The latter discusses the denial of the right of competent adults to refuse medical treatment in life-threatening cases, which I have not previously heard discussed; I have taken for granted in this post that the wish of an adult to refuse treatment would be accepted without question, the only difficulty being the sort of emergency situation where treatment is necessary instantly and the wishes of the patient cannot be determined.

I’d point out that the arguments used for forcing blood transfusions on adults there could equally be used to justify forced abortion in similar circumstances.

To the “nobody can be deprived of life by their own parents” argument, I would reply that the parents are not depriving the child of life, but that it is a case of double effect, as in any case of the refusal of a good consequence on the grounds that the means are illegitimate. If parents refused to accept an organ taken from a live donor against that donor’s consent, or even a traded organ, for their child on ethical grounds despite the fact that the child would die without the transplant, I do not think it would be held that they were depriving the child of life. Disagreeing with the principles does not mean we should refuse to respect integrity.

4. We had some interesting debates on this at university. In my experience, most people with a secular world view, whose summary position is that anything is permissible to save a life, do in fact draw the line at, for instance, an organ transplant taken from a live donor contrary to their consent.

5. To go into the whole problem of liberalism and minors – the fact that it is difficult to accommodate children logically in a theory which doesn’t allow for the development of rationality within a tradition – would be too far out of the subject, but I am well aware of it as an issue of difference. Parental authority is something that tends to be justified by natural law theories of a particular type, and that liberals could challenge me here regarding their view by saying that parental autonomy is not part of their ideas. My response would be that if it is not possible to justify parental autonomy in matters such as medical treatment, it is almost certainly even more difficult to justify the nation state as having that authority instead. It should also be remembered that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: the right of the thirteen-year-old daughter of Roman Catholic parents to be prescribed the contraceptive pill contrary to her parents’ wishes, on the grounds that she has adequate capacity to make her own decision, is the right of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager of similar maturity to take the risk of refusing a blood transfusion on the same grounds.

6. I am a communitarian rather than a liberal, however, I agree, with some qualifications, with MacIntyre’s position that a nation state is not a type of community which can have an extensive shared notion of the common good. This tends to produce similar answers to those that liberalism would give on this type of question, despite the fact that the chain of reasoning by which they are reached is fundamentally different. (Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift; Liberals and Communitarians; second edition; Blackwell Publishing 1996; pages 98-101). As far as liberalism goes, I am arguing that the denial of parental autonomy in cases like those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not consistent with the liberal position, even though I do not share the liberal position except coincidentally.

7. See John Stuart Mill; On Liberty; Penguin Classics 1985; p. 77-83.

8. To have a precise answer to this question would require a theory regarding exactly what authority properly appertains to the individual, the family, local community, and nation state, in what circumstances, and why, and that is a very complicated question.


Cherry Foster

Posting the Axolotl

Axolotl; Sourced from I was looking at some of these recently, but none of the photos turned out well.


I think I might have run out of funny excuses for posting a photo of an animal rather than writing a proper post.  But at least, I think it could be said without too much fear of contradiction that this amazing little creature isn’t cute.  After a morning spent doing philosophy the notion that it might be possible to say something without fear of contradiction seems an extremely alien concept!

The reason for the lack of a “proper” post is that I was writing a piece on Parental Autonomy, which needs more work than I can give it this morning to be rendered intelligible.  In the absence of my deciding that the argument is impossibly flawed, it’ll hopefully be up next Thursday or sooner.


Cherry Foster

Cinderella, Crisis, and Conditions

Some thoughts on L. M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle”. (Contains spoilers).

View of a Lake in Canada. Source, Wikimedia Commons:

The Blue Castle is an odd book. It is, on one level, Cinderella warmed over and served up with early-twentieth-century sauce, but it is so beautifully done that it has all the inherent satisfaction of Cinderella, with all the interest of a new story. I wasn’t certain, the first time I read it, that Valancy wasn’t going to die.

The Cinderella figure, Valancy Stirling, is at the beginning of the book, an “old maid”. This designates, as far as I can see, a woman over twenty-five who doesn’t seem to have any prospect of getting married – and in this context, it does seem to be generally pejorative rather than merely descriptive. Her mother treats her badly, controlling her every move, nagging, requiring useless work of her simply in order that she should not be idle. Not merely is she controlled to a very unreasonable extent, but her mother does not love her and does not need her, and is continuously unpleasant to her, going into long, silent sulks whenever Valancy, however reasonably, attempts to assert herself. Amelia Stirling could give Mrs. Norris a run for her money. The rest of the family (various uncles, aunts, and cousins) are the same, or rather, they each have their own distinctive way of being unpleasant. The stepsisters are represented by a cousin, Olive, who is beautiful, wealthy, and engaged to be married, though, unlike the stepsisters, she is not the chief cause of Valancy’s difficulties or suffering.

Valancy, daringly, goes to a doctor without her mother’s knowledge. The doctor is called away in the middle of the consultation, and sends her a letter informing her she has not more than a year to live. Valancy’s reaction to this is to break through the boundaries her unpleasant family set her – she changes her style of hairdressing, moves her bed from one corner of her room to another, and refuses to piece unnecessary quilts.

She eventually leaves home to nurse a school friend, whose illness, combined with a drunken father, has resulted in her not having anyone to wait on her. After the school friend dies, she marries someone she has got to know while living with her: Barney Snaith, probable criminal, who lives on an island in the middle of a large lake. Her marriage is a fascinating study of the fact that her instinctive judgement – that this man is a decent person – is far better than her reasoning. He is good to her, and she is in love with him, and doesn’t care whether he is a criminal or not, as she hasn’t long to live and doesn’t really need to consider the possible consequences.

Her relatives are not at this point being that unreasonable in objecting, but it is cleverly brought out that, with one exception, her relatives are hurt in their pride rather than worried about her welfare. One of the things which I find interesting about the book from the ethical point of view, though it isn’t really a theme of the book as such, is the boundary between convention and immorality. The conventions which ruin Valancy’s reputation because she has gone to nurse a girl who has had an illegitimate child (the result, apparently, of ignorance rather than guilt, at least on her part), and whose father is a drunk, she criticises with energy, and with considerable justice. But it is hardly morally irrelevant if she is paying her household expenses with stolen or counterfeit money. This doesn’t impinge on my enjoyment of the story, but I find it interesting. Social norms and conventions have changed so much since, that it is sometimes difficult to feel the full force of the way she is disobeying them – as when she asks Barney to marry her.

After enjoying a wonderful year exploring the woods and the lake with Barney, it becomes suddenly apparent to both of them she isn’t going to die. She goes back to the doctor, and it turns out the letter was not meant for her but for someone else. Twelve o’clock has struck. She goes back to her mother’s house, assuming that her husband will want to divorce her. And this is where one of L. M. Montgomery’s real strengths comes through. Her characters are never one dimensional. Valancy’s mother, unpleasant, controlling, ordering her life to false values, stops short of shutting the door on her daughter. Valancy’s husband – who is actually a millionaire’s son and a famous author, with quite innocent reasons for living as he does – comes after her. Eventually he convinces her he does actually love her, and they live “happily ever after”, or at least, the closest equivalent to it that’s actually possible in a story set in the real world.

Much though I love the book, I find the crisis leading to the ending (that of Valancy’s leaving Barney) deeply frustrating in some ways. I tend to feel its emotional force – which it certainly has – second hand. I admire this part of the book greatly as a piece of writing, but I don’t really empathise with what’s happening. The characters as she has set them up would act like that. They aren’t people who would sit down sensibly in front of a good fire and talk about what to do next under the changed circumstances. Barney is very reserved, and doesn’t talk openly with her when she needs him to, at the point they realise that she isn’t going to die. She misconstrues this as anger. She also has what we’d probably call “low self-esteem”; it isn’t surprising she finds it impossible to believe a man should be in love with her. And she has acted so far out of the conventions by asking someone to marry her, that her being utterly horrified by the fact that what she had said wasn’t true, however sincerely she believed it, is natural enough; it is also natural that, coming from a changed culture, I should find it difficult to feel the implications of this and the burdens it lays on her, even with a certain amount of intellectual comprehension of what’s going on.

Part of the reason I find this crisis difficult to enter into is that I find it extremely jarring that she is behaving as if it is possible for either of them to add extra conditions to Christian marriage. It is reasonable to assume they will have sworn “until death do us part”*. They will not have added “so long as one of us dies within the year, and otherwise this is not binding”!** It is not a new problem for cultural conventions and assumptions to be stronger than the values stated in the Christian liturgy. However, this is perhaps rather like a sailor complaining that the knots were of the wrong type on the ropes on the sails in a boat on the stage! It may be a valid observation, glaring to anyone who frequently deals with sails, but it isn’t really relevant to the story: it is an in-character incident not tied to the values advocated by the novel when taken as a whole.

The other thing which makes it difficult for me to enter into what she is going through is the fact that there is no obvious need for her to return to her old life as a “vegetable”, with the result that I feel that the crisis is overdone, as it dwells a lot on that aspect of things. It probably isn’t overdone internally – that is how she would see it and how she would think. But I find it difficult to believe that having once broken the shackles of being a perpetual minor, and her mother having had to accept that, they could ever be mended. Nothing is stopping her taking on work, until perhaps, she’s earned the money to train as a nurse or a teacher. Possibly I misread the situation, in that it may be that the way she has ruined her reputation would prevent or make it difficult for her to find employment – though it is difficult to see people like her old school friend declining her on those grounds. And, as I also felt it was obvious that Barney isn’t really going to divorce her, while I grieve over the way she’s suffering, it feels to some extent imaginary, as it is the result of the anticipation of a bleak future that is obviously not going to happen to her from the reader’s point of view.

It is beautifully written, however, and completely in character; I suspect whether or not people find these chapters easy to enter into emotionally depends a lot on their own personality, and whether they are more inclined to live in the moment or to think all around everything from every possible angle. And despite the fact that it is fairly clear that things will sort themselves out, I remained interested in how right through to the end. And have enjoyed rereading it quite a few times. While the book sounds rather dark from a simple description, it is in fact very varied in its tone, from the weariness of the dying school friend, to the sheer fun of Valancy’s breaking out and saying what she thinks to her unpleasant relatives, to long descriptions of the natural beauty around her at her married home, and the excitement of the events leading to the end. It is perfectly constructed as a story, and everything that happens has a good reason for happening: there’s nothing that feels contrived.



*Valancy and Barney are married by a Free Methodist minister in Port Laurence: the words of the marriage service are not actually stated, and I haven’t worked out any way of checking the detail of the vows they would have made. It is likely they are similar to those I am familiar with, at least on this point, but I cannot be absolutely certain.

** I suppose some might make a case for annulment on the grounds of lack of real consent under such circumstances, which would allow people to add conditions, but I find it rather worrying that it should be possible for competent, responsible adults to make a vow in the presence of God, take all the advantages of that vow for a time, but be able to refuse to treat it as binding on the grounds that they had added conditions. This is at least hardly in the spirit of “let your yes be yes, and your no, no”. However, that type of issue is more the province of theologians than philosophers, and certainly the reasons for which Valancy acts as she does are cultural and emotional rather than theological.


Cherry Foster

The Odd One Out

I came across the following – pulled, I think, from an agony aunt column – on another blog*, and it intrigued me enough to want to try to write my own response to it. I think it is interesting, and hopefully helpful, to try to look at it from both sides.

I wrote this with Portia’s dictum ringing in my ears: “I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”** And also with the awareness that one never really understands what someone else is experiencing from the outside: there could be a lot more to the original situation that I’m not really getting.



Every fall, my sister, cousins and a cousin’s sister-in-law have a weekend shopping excursion in our home city.
We stay in a hotel, treat ourselves, shop for our children and go out for lunches and dinners. It is a great time to reconnect.

I have a sister “Wendy,” who we do not invite. She is offended to the point of tears when she finds we have not invited her. My two sisters and I are very close in age, but Wendy hasn’t been as close to this set of cousins as my sister and I have been through the years.

We are all married stay-at-home moms. Wendy is a divorced, working mom with one young child.

There are several reasons we do not include her. We know she doesn’t have very much money for such an outing. She also does not have many of the same interests as we do. Her life is quite different from ours. We’re not interested in what she has to talk about. She complains too much about her aches and pains, and claims to have some kind of neurological disease that some of us feel is more psychosomatic than real and which she uses to avoid getting up for church on Sundays.

She also complains about her ex-husband who left her for another woman, but everyone knows it takes “two to tango” and she is not without fault.

We’re all very active churchgoers, while she only sporadically attends services. Plain and simple, she does not really fit in with us anymore.

She takes it very personally, and last year even came over to my home unannounced crying about it, which upset my children and caused my husband to threaten to call the police if she did not leave.

Now she barely speaks to me and has told our relatives that I am a horrible person (even though I’ve helped her).

How can we get her to understand that she should perhaps find another set of friends whose lives and interests align more closely with hers? — Sad Sister



I appreciate that this is a difficult situation for you, in that presumably you don’t get much time out, and it is hard not to be able to spend all that time with others whom you find are able to refresh you. However, your sister is your sister, and can reasonably expect to be invited to your shared outings if she wants to be.

Making room for others who have different interests and different lifestyles can require a lot of effort. It can also bring a lot of rewards.

With regard to her complaining, people often do complain a lot when they feel they are not being believed. It isn’t your problem to judge her health or how far she has a real reason for not going to Church – that is between her and God (and those advising her if she receives guidance). And as far as her husband goes, if it takes two to tango, it must follow that he was genuinely to blame as well! In which case what she is complaining about may be completely sound. People are more likely to be able to come to terms with their faults, and acknowledge and amend them, in a sympathetic, supportive, and loving environment, than in an environment where they are being criticised and condemned. Also, if she is being drawn away from attending Church, it would probably be good if people who do still attend are able to include her and keep her in touch with Church life: it is likely to be easier for her to return that way, than if she is being drawn further away by fully secular friends.

I suggest that the appropriate thing to do would be for you and your cousins and sister-in-law to have a frank discussion regarding why you find it difficult to have her with you. After which, perhaps one of you – whoever is the most likely negotiator – might try inviting her out for lunch (or whatever the family tends to do) in a friendly way, and try to see her side of it and her point of view, with a view to inviting her to join in with you in some mutually workable way. If it is impossible for you to get along if certain subjects are mentioned, try to negotiate rules such as that she doesn’t complain about her husband to you, while none of you criticise her for being divorced.

It might also be worth trying to rebuild your relationship with her independently. While she might refrain from criticising you in quite those terms, at least outside confidential conversations, I feel she probably does have a bit of a grievance. She obviously cares about you and about being part of the family and being included, and it does sound as if you are not really making as much room for her as you might. I don’t think charity involves denying other people’s faults or trying to pretend they are not there – that doesn’t do anyone any good – but it does involve trying to be gentle with them, in the knowledge that we are asking others to do that for our faults too.

If you are willing to compromise, it may be that she will in time spontaneously do so too, and, for example, come along on the outings but spend part of the time doing something else, or with other friends, giving you the space you need together to talk about your mutual interests and give each other mutual support, while enriching your friendship group the rest of the time with a different point of view. It will take work and input and some sacrifices on your part, but it may well also bring great rewards. Friendships and relationships which have involved sacrifices are often more solid than those which have always been easy.





**The Merchant of Venice, Act one, scene two

Simplicity or Accuracy – but not both…

Why I find it difficult to make simple requests about my extra needs

In the world of Ugg, dragon’s blood and eggs are part of the stable diet.

This particular alien, however, has something of an intolerance and has to be careful how much she eats.

On attending a conference, she finds the message hasn’t got through, and she has to explain to the catering staff at the counter, that she probably needs something else to eat.

“Well, I can’t eat very much dragon’s products,” she stammers out. “Less in the evening. Does this have more than a yiff or so in it?”

The staff don’t know. “Well, I would hazard it in the morning,” she hesitates, “But, well, a portion probably only has one egg in it? If you take the dragon’s blood batter off? That would probably be ok. I can take about five yiffs if I eat them early in the day, but not in the evening.”

The serving staff try to work it out, but they don’t do the cooking, and they aren’t clear what’s needed.

By this time the hungry queue is getting exasperated. Just make a decision. Just say you need something dragon-free. That’s simple. They should have dragon-free cook-chill meals in the freezer. That’s what they need to hear.

Yes. But if she says that she needs a dragon-free meal, when the staff or fellow attendees see her eating the dragon’s-blood cake for elevenses the next day, will they think, casually, “oh, she’s able to take moderate amounts sometimes, it was just simpler for everyone for her to ask for a dragon-free supper”? Or will they condemn her for malingering and being selfish and giving unnecessary trouble, and refuse in future to give her dragon-free food when she does need it, or do so resentfully and sullenly? Will they make her ill by saying spitefully that things are dragon-free when they aren’t, because they’ve decided that she must be lying about having a problem?

The other aliens are likely to jump the conclusion that she must be unable to eat any dragon products, on the strength of the fact that the easiest way for everyone of handling what she did need at that moment was for her to ask for a dragon-free meal, and that will cause her a lot of other difficulties.

As someone with an extremely complex disability, I don’t mind simplifying what I say about my needs to make it easier for people. What makes it difficult to simplify, and causes me to keep giving extremely complex descriptions which people couldn’t take in all at once even if they wanted to know, is that simple descriptions are inevitably inaccurate, and our cultural mind-set doesn’t allow for that. Simple descriptions and requests don’t and can’t represent the whole picture, but people usually suppose that they do.

As a result, when people with extra needs do simplify, the second the simple description doesn’t match the reality, there are generally people who instantly and angrily start accusing us of pretending. “I thought you said you needed… but you don’t, you wicked, horrible person, who doesn’t really have any extra needs, pretending in order to get sympathy/to the front of the queue/exam privileges”. Or – which is often worse – who respond to their assumption that we must be lying by clandestinely making sure we can’t get what we need.  People without special needs who don’t do this are probably not aware of how much it happens.

We can simplify when appropriate to make it easier for people: I think the discussion about how best to handle and communicate special requirements smoothly and efficiently is ongoing. But communication is necessarily mutual. Where people want simple, easy descriptions and requests, we need to ask in return that they accept that simple descriptions will be inaccurate, and that the automatic assumption, when we do or need things which don’t match what we’ve said to the letter, should be that our needs or difficulties are more complicated than we were initially able to convey in a few sentences.


Cherry Foster