The Part of the “Kids Don’t Belong to their Families” Argument that You Missed

By now, most of us have heard of or seen the video by MSNBC host Mellissa Harris-Perry in which she actually says, “We have to break through our private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and realize that kids belong to whole communities.” Clearly, this was not an off-the-cuff remark, since it is actually part of a MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” promotional campaign. The revealing comment was part of an argument for greater “investment” in public education.

Responding to the firestorm following her comments, Ms. Harris-Perry removed any doubt that she had been misunderstood, although she did it with a how dare you accuse me of saying what I said kind of bravado. The not-so-subtle change in what she is apparently arguing now is that “our children, all of our children, are part of more than our households, they are part of our communities and deserve to have the care, attention, resources, respect and opportunities of those communities.”

Well, who would disagree with that? That’s not at all what she actually said in the video that she defiantly defends, but let’s set that aside for a moment. She goes on in her statement to make another revealing argument that cannot be chocked up to mere spontaneity:

I’ll even admit that despite being an unwavering advocate for women’s reproductive rights, I have learned this lesson from some of my most sincere, ethically motivated, pro-life colleagues. Those people who truly believe that the potential life inherent in a fetus is equivalent to the actualized life of an infant have argued that the community has a distinct interest in children no matter what the mother’s and father’s interests or needs. So while we come down on different sides of the choice issue, we agree that kids are not the property of their parents. Their lives matter to all of us.

It is hard to pin someone down when their argument is this sloppy and disingenuous, but one suspects that this is exactly its purpose.

You can add your own rejoinders to Ms. Harris-Perry’s head-slappingly nonsensical argument here in the comments section below, but I wanted to focus on just two things: First, notice how she defines “life” here (or assumes a definition) – it isn’t in the biological sense, but in a certain qualitative sense that is somehow only ascribed, and obviously so, to infants (or, we can assume, to older children and adults, or at least those adults who meet her definition of being worthy of “life”). As we see in the Gosnell trial, and the media’s  unwillingness to cover the story, this definition is far from being as obvious as Ms. Harris-Perry presents it. Second, look at what she does with this juxtaposition between “potential” and “actualized” (one pictures Aquinas pounding the cloud floor in heaven). She crowbars her denial of the value of unborn human “potential” life into a claim that those who defend these lives do so on the basis of some perception that the children do not in an important way belong to the parents.

This really is how many on the political extremes think. They see a phenomenon that they disagree with, project their own beliefs into the crevasses of the misunderstanding, and emerge validated in their own views—regardless of what the other party really thinks.

What Ms. Harris-Perry doesn’t seem to understand is a fact that most people, including every embryologist, already know — that unborn human life – the human embryo – is not merely “potential” but an actual human being. Advocates for life simply take the further and formerly uncontroversial step of recognizing that human being’s right to life. It has nothing to do with pro-lifers feeling that they have equal “ownership” (also a very problematic word when talking about human beings) of the child with his mother or father, it is based in the belief that children, no matter who their parents are, should not be killed. Ms. Harris-Perry kind of begins to articulate this in her non-clarification of the controversial video: that we are not persons in isolation, but persons in community. Be that as it may, this fact in no way entails that parents do not have primary rights over their children and their family. The government must recognize and defend these rights, not trample them.

Indeed, Ms. Harris-Perry, and other defenders of abortion, believe in some “right to privacy” that allows parents and doctors to even kill their unborn or recently born child for any reason. So which one is it? When exactly does this “right” expire?

The corruption of Christian anthropology – the understanding of the true nature of the human person and his true flourishing – has many consequences, one of which is political radicals thinking they have as much right to make key decisions for your children as you do. Parents do have the rights to form and educate their own children, and to reach out to communities or other entities for support in doing so. Nothing in these other entities, including the government, trumps parents’ legitimate rights.

But there is no right to kill one’s own child, privacy or not. It isn’t a question of “ownership,” but of the right to life that some defend, and others only grant to those special members of the species that they feel have earned it. That our nation disagrees about this is a large reason for why we find less and less to agree about, and why we are more divided every day.

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