Why do activists concerned with the lives of children attempt to protect children's interests by invoking the notion of rights? The key features of the rhetoric of basic rights are (1) that rights are entitlements, and (2) that they impose duties on others. To claim something as a fundamental right is to make the strongest kind of claim one can make; it is to claim that something is an entitlement, not a privilege—something it would be not merely inadvisable or regrettable, but wrong and unjust, to withhold. And, typically, if one person is the bearer of rights, some or all others are the bearers of obligations. In the case of basic rights, the responsibilities fall either on all others as individuals or on the government, which in the case of democracies means on individuals acting as representatives of the citizenry. This is easily seen in the cases of the rights of adults to free speech and to healthcare.
The rights to free speech and healthcare illustrate two broad classes of rights given a variety of names by theorists. These may be designated option rights and welfare rights respectively (Golding). The idea behind option rights is that there is a sphere of sovereignty within which the individual cannot be intruded upon by government, even for the greater good. This idea is at the heart of classical liberal theory. Option rights are rights to choose. For instance, although persons have the right to speak, they may remain silent if they wish. Welfare rights, on the other hand, are rights to direct provision of services, such as medical care, that meet a basic need.
Do both categories apply to children? The notion of option rights motivated children's rights activists who saw children as oppressed by adults. Psychologist Richard Farson stated, "Children, like adults, should have the right to decide the matters which affect them most directly. The issue of self-determination is at the heart of children's liberation" (p. 27). The authors of the United Nations Declaration, on the other hand, focused almost exclusively on welfare rights. For example:
The child, for the full and harmonious development of his [sic] personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and in any case in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. (United Nations, p. 113)
Although some children's advocates urge recognition of both option and welfare rights, the underlying rationales are quite different. While the rationale for according children option rights conceives of minor status itself as a disabling condition that ought to be removed, the rationale for welfare rights urges that various goods and services be provided to minors as minors.
Most sensible people would look askance at putting children, especially young children, on a par with adults, insofar as freedom to live as they wish is concerned. The notion of a protected sphere of autonomous decision making is closely linked to the presence of developed capacities for rational choice, capacities that usually are only potential in young children. It may well be that the development of autonomy is impeded when children are not permitted to exercise choices in their lives, but advocating that children be given some options is a far cry from asserting that children have the same rights as adults to live their lives as they please. Paternalism, the coercion of individuals for their own good, is odious only when those coerced are capable of exercising rational choice.
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