Is there no other way to explain parental prerogatives, besides making children out to be either owned by us or in some sense a part of us? In the book The Ethics of Parenthood, Norvin Richards offers a startlingly simple account. He argues that parental prerogatives stem from a general right to continue whatever we have started, as long as we have violated no one’s rights in starting it. I started my daughter’s life, not the life of Geraldine, who was born on the same day. So I’m entitled to continue that project instead of someone else taking over. It’s up to me to bring my daughter home, if I wish to, for the same reason.

This is more straightforward than saying children are a part of their parents’ wider identity—that they are second selves of their parents. But is it true? Is there really, in general, a right to finish what we’ve started? Richards has not convinced me that this is so. Suppose someone starts a day-care center, violating nobody’s rights in the process. Parents place their children in the center, and the owner looks forward to the day when the first class will graduate and move on to kindergarten. That could reasonably be considered finishing what she started, with each child. The parents, though, find the day-care center not to their liking. You couldn’t say the children’s rights were being violated, but there isn’t as much enrichment as the parents would like. Does the owner get to finish what she’s started, keeping the children under her care until they’re school-aged, despite the parents’ preferences? Surely not.

Or consider the example of a music teacher who wants to shepherd children from earliest violin lessons to senior recital. Even if the teacher violates nobody’s rights, parents are surely entitled to frustrate this teacher’s ambitions, if they find the lessons inadequate for any reason. We can stop people from finishing what they’ve started. And so the prerogatives of biological parents are clearly not just extensions of some general prerogative to finish what they’ve started. There’s no such prerogative.

Unlike day-care center owners and violin teachers, when we start raising a newborn baby, we do get to finish what we’ve started, but it can’t be that we are entitled to do so merely because we started something. Rather, it must be for reasons that distinguish the parental case from the other cases. The difference is that biological parenthood makes me the first person the child comes from, the first to see the child as a second self. There could be others—a child comes from adoptive parents in many senses, and I may authorize such a transfer, but the prerogative to parent is mine because I was the first to have this very special relationship.

Now, two parents can disagree about a child’s future, vying over custody and other matters. When they both have the same biological connection to a child, disputes have to be resolved on some basis or another. Looking at facts about how a child’s life got started can be relevant, much like the best interests of the child can also be relevant. But the most basic thing—why biological parents have special prerogatives to begin with—is not just a question of some alleged right to finish what we’ve started.

Finally (and briefly), one more explanation for the special prerogatives of biological parents might go like this. When we create a baby, whether accidentally or deliberately, we cause there to be a situation in which someone is in a state of need nine months later— the baby. We are different from anyone else who simply notices the baby’s being needy, like the person who causes a car accident is different from a bystander. More than anyone else, it’s our fault the baby needs care, and so we (mother and father) have a duty to provide care. The next step in the reasoning says that someone who has a duty to do something must also have a prerogative to do the thing. The duty entails the prerogative. Thus, biological parents have a prerogative to care for their children.

It’s certainly unattractive to derive our norms from such an unflattering description of becoming a parent—“It’s like getting into a car accident!” But if we do take that description seriously, does it really lead to the desired conclusion? My duty when I cause an accident is not to aid the injured, but rather to make sure the injured receive aid. In fact, in some cases I shouldn’t render aid, because others are more competent than I am. Likewise, if this were the right way to account for parental prerogatives, the only conclusion would be that biological parents have the prerogative to find someone competent to care for their children. Mere accountability for the baby’s neediness wouldn’t give them the right to take the baby home.

We must come back, then, to the simple idea that a child is an extension of self, a part of my wider identity. I get to bring home the child I delivered because the child is, in a manner of speaking, part of me. Although this wouldn’t be decisive in every case (think of custody battles between parents), it is decisive the vast majority of the time. It’s certainly decisive when the person vying for custody with a biological parent is an unrelated potential adopter.

The story I have told—involving “coming from” and children being second selves—gives us the best explanation available for the special prerogatives of biological parents. But wait. Do biological parents really have these prerogatives? I’ve assumed so throughout this chapter, but now we turn to some voices of skepticism.

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