No Mere Afterthought: Children's Rights in the Battle over Marriage
by E. Douglas Clark
Marriage is literally on trial. As the United States Supreme Court prepares to decide the fate of Prop 8 and DOMA, the very definition of marriage hangs in the balance. Before the highest court in the land, lawyers are arguing that continuing to limit marriage to those of the opposite sex infringes the rights of gays and lesbians. But what about the rights of children?
Since the dawn of human history, marriage between a man and a woman has been—by divine design, many believe—the bedrock foundation of family and civilization. This natural complementarity of father and mother has afforded the optimum opportunity for children to grow and flourish. Notwithstanding the multitude of imperfect parents and flawed marriages, the ideal has remained constant. "The family has been the ultimate foundation of every civilization known to history," wrote world historian Will Durant.
Does a child need a father? President Barak Obama declared: "Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation."
Does a child need a mother? Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated: "Mothers play a critical role in the family, which is a powerful force for social cohesion and integration. The mother-child relationship is vital for the healthy development of children.... We face multiple challenges in our changing world, but one factor remains constant: the timeless importance of mothers and their invaluable contribution to raising the next generation."
So much for the NEEDS of children, but what about their RIGHTS? Dr. Allan C. Carlson, eminent scholar and President of the Howard Center, has spoken of the right of children to a father, a mother, and a family founded on marriage. (Click here to read his How to Make the World Truly Safe for Children.)
Those inclined to dismiss Carlson's view as whimsical or mere wishful thinking would do well to read the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. “The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care,” and “mankind owes to the child the best it has to give… The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities… to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration… The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents."
From where did the Declaration of the Rights of the Child derive such a notion about children being entitled to special protection? We are not left to guess, as the preamble explains, "The need for such special safeguards has been stated in the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924, and recognized in the Uinversal Declaration of Human Rights and in the statutes of specialized agencies and international organizations concerned with the welfare of children."
There is irony, then, in the fact that some advocates of gay marriage claim it as a right based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Apparently they have not read the document, which places the rights of children in a privileged category: "Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance." No other class of individuals is mentioned in the UDHR as being entitled to special care and assistance.
This heightened right of children constitutes an indispensable element in determining any potentially competing right under the UDHR. According to Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon, "The Declaration’s ability to weather the turbulence ahead has been compromised by the practice of reading its integrated articles as a string of essentially separate guarantees. Nations and interest groups continue to use selected provisions as weapons or shields, wrenching them out of context and ignoring the rest…. Forgetfulness, neglect, and opportunism have thus obscured the Declaration’s message that rights have conditions—that everyone’s rights are importantly dependent on respect for the rights of others, on the rule of law, and on a healthy civil society."
The words of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child seem more timely than ever: "In the enactment of laws" to ensure the special protection to which children are entitled, "the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration."
Yes, children still need a mother and a father, at least as much now as through the eons of history in which that need has been answered by the institution of marriage—the sacred and sanctioned union of a man and a woman.