November 9th, 2009

The case for forcing birth control on unfit mothers

The Dutch are odd. They seem so moderate, so practical, so sensible – a nation of considerate egalitarian cyclists – yet they take their virtues to extremes. They pursue common sense to a fault. For instance, there are plenty of arguments in favour of mercy killing, yet few nations feel quite able to make it legal. The Dutch did, with enthusiasm, long ago. The same is true of legalising cannabis and prostitution. Another example of this tendency emerged last week. Reports hit the blogosphere that a Dutch socialist politician, Marjo Van Dijken of the PvDA party (the social democratic Labour party), is putting a draft bill before the Dutch parliament recommending that unfit mothers should be forced by law into two years of contraception. Any babies wilfully conceived in that period should be confiscated at birth. Unfit mothers would mean those who have already been in serious trouble because of their bad parenting. There is, I suppose, a grain of common sense behind all that, but Van Dijken has taken it to what seem like scary extremes. One imagines Dutch do-gooders on bikes, descending on all the imperfect mothers of Holland and bearing away their babies in countless bicycle baskets, like totalitarian ex-post facto storks. In person Van Dijken sounds less alarming. She explains that the professionals who come into contact with families in difficulties all say the same thing. They see the same problems repeated again and again in certain families. It’s obvious from when social workers are forced to take the first child into care that it won’t be the last. Dijken’s idea is to try to prevent a new pregnancy in a family whose existing children are already in care until the situation has improved enough for them to be able to come back home. Two years might be a suitable period. If, after the suggested two years of compulsory contraception, the family is still not safe for children, the contraception order could be extended by a judge’s review. “If there’s a better way, a less invasive way, I will never mention my proposals again,” she says. If hers is not the answer to the problem, the question remains: what should be done about unfit parents? Children are increasingly being damaged by them. At the extremes, chaotic mothers who are prostitutes or addicts or mentally ill or just what my own mother called inadequate are condemning their children to the same miserable and disordered lives. Man hands on misery to man, as Philip Larkin wrote, and so does woman. Less extremely, many children are also being damaged by parents who are not so obviously unfit, but still bad enough to do serious harm. On Friday questions by Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, revealed that more than 4,000 children aged five or under were suspended from school in Britain because of their troubled and violent behaviour. Of the 400 suspensions of children aged just two and three, 310 involved physical assault and threatening behaviour. Numbers of exclusion in all groups under 11 are increasing, mostly because of uncontrolled or violent behaviour. According to Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, nursery and primary schools are seeing more parents who have simply lost control: “It’s down to poor parenting.” Very bad behaviour at school at an early age is just the tip of a disastrous iceberg; hidden under the surface lies a future of illiteracy, unemployment, crime, broken relationships and unhappiness. Even before children of unfit parents get to schools, their destiny is blighted. Increasingly scientists are beginning to understand that neglect retards cognitive development or impairs it – as with the extreme cases of children in Romanian orphanages, who have never recovered from the personal and sensory deprivation they suffered. Language skills and social skills not learnt in infancy may never be learnt; trauma will be hard-wired into the brain. In plain English, an infant whose mother never reads or plays with him or her, who is constantly uncertain what will happen next and whether he or she will eat, or whether the mother will be enraged or demanding or high, is a child with a permanently damaged future. The cost of bad parents to such an individual is terrible, but it is also very high to the rest of society. Given all that, it cannot be right for inadequate mothers to go on giving birth to babies who are destined to be damaged and to inflict damage on others. Equally, it seems wrong to think of interfering with a woman’s freedom to have a baby. So we are left with the question of which evil is greater – interference with the mother’s freedom or the damage to her child and to society. As John Stuart Mill said: “To bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.” A moral crime, I agree. But Mill goes on to say that “if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the state ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. Taxing unfit parents, rather than temporarily sterilising unfit mothers, might seem more acceptable. But there are several glaring problems with this solution, too. Such parents won’t have any money to tax. And besides, the most unfit parent of all is the state; in this country its nurslings are condemned to exceptionally high rates of illiteracy, poverty, crime and mental illness. On Mill’s argument, the state here ought to be taxed for the disastrous treatment of its “looked-after” children. A simpler way to reduce the number of damaged children would be to give parents incentives not to have more than two children; after two, benefits would be withdrawn and larger housing could be withheld. It seems to me unfair to deny people any children at all. But it might be right to reduce the number to two. That would be fairer to taxpayers than expecting them to support families larger than their own and it might persuade genuinely unfit mothers that it is not in their interests to keep producing babies; they will be better off without. It is time that, like Van Dijken, we started asking these extreme questions.