March 31, 2023

Mary Ziegler: What parents are really getting from the GOP’s ‘parents’ rights’ agenda

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Writing for CNN, Mary Ziegler traces the many repressive bills being pushed under the parent’s rights umbrella and asks what is behind the appeal.

What’s behind the appeal to parental control? It may come down to the Constitution: the courts have recognized a constitutional right for parents to steer the upbringing of children. That’s certainly a legitimate concern. The Supreme Court has confirmed that parental decision making is entitled to “special weight,” and states defer to parental choices in most contexts, short of abuse and neglect.

But the GOP’s new parental rights strategy must be understood in historical context: in the past, similar tactics were used to delegitimize the choices minors were making and create an opening wedge to attack the rights of adults who make those same choices.

Moreover, by elevating the rights of some parents, they are devaluing those who do want their children to learn about slavery at school or help their children explore their gender identities.

When questions of racial segregation landed in the federal courts in the 1950s, conservatives developed very different arguments about parental rights. In fights to preserve segregation, white, middle class parents invoked parental rights and family autonomy from the 1950s to the 1970s, even as parents of color felt that their own rights were being given short shrift.

Later in the 1970s, Anita Bryant, a celebrity of the religious right, borrowed from segregationist parental rights rhetoric, launching a group called Save Our Children that successfully fought to roll back civil rights ordinances for gays and lesbians. The anti-abortion movement adopted a parental rights strategy too, proposing state laws requiring parental notification or consent.

In the 1980s, conservative Christians launched a home-school movement and demanded a parental rights amendment to the Constitution, and the Reagan Administration issued a rule requiring federally funded birth control clinics to notify parents whose children were receiving contraception.

In the 1990s, the Christian Coalition and allied groups angry about sex education and information about HIV/AIDS promoted bills in Congress and 28 states providing that “[t]he right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.”

These claims made sense when many conservatives were unsure about the wisdom of directly attacking the legitimacy of integration, gay rights or the other issues of the day. Focusing on parental prerogatives was easier, and seemingly appealed to Americans who had not yet made up their minds, or who did not wish to appear bigoted. But parental rights arguments have also served as an opening to target the rights of adults as well as minors.

Often, after all, some conservatives suggested that parents not only have a right to object to something but also that their objections have some basis in fact—that minors are being groomed, exploited or harmed.

It is then no surprise that parental rights strategies are back. Led by Gen Z, support for abortion rights, equality for LGTBQ Americans and racial justice is growing. A record number of Americans in a recent Gallup poll supported same-sex marriage, and a growing number of American adults identify as LGTBQ. Especially after the Dobbs decision removing the federal protection for abortion, more Americans are identifying as pro-choice than almost ever before, and the number of Americans who think abortion should be illegal is hitting all-time lows.

Focusing on parental authority may be an attractive alternative for conservatives uncomfortable with these shifts, especially if they want to avoid alienating voters, all without abandoning inequitable and unpopular positions.

Read the full op-ed here. 

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