Do Children Have a Right to Medical Care?

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). This isn’t a fringe organization, and it’s never just been about homeschooling. Michael Farris, who founded the organization in 1983, is a well-connected figure in the Christian Right. He ran for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia back in the 1990s. Earlier this month, he took a job as the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the country’s largest Christian Right legal group.

Anyway, check out HSLDA’s analysis of a Hawaii bill from last year:

Senate Bill 2387: Requires a Physical Examination prior to 7th grade

Summary:
Senate Bill 2387 will not affect homeschool students. The current statute applies to students who attend “school,” which is defined in HAW. REV. STAT. 302A-901 as all “public or private” schools in the state. Parents who home school are exempt from attending a “public or private” school, pursuant to HAW. REV. STAT. 302A-1132, so the current statute—and any revision—is not applicable to homeschooled students.

The bill has the potential to impact the rights of parents who enroll their children in public or private schools, and who do not want to have their child have a physical prior to 7th grade. HSLDA supports the rights of parents, not the state, to determine whether or not their child needs a physical examination.

HSLDA’s Position:
Oppose.

Let’s be very clear about what this release says. HSLDA’s official position, according to this document, is that parents should be allowed to determine whether their children need physicals—presumably, ever. Previous to this bill’s introduction, children in Hawaii were required to have a physical before attending kindergarten. With the passage of this bill (despite HSLDA’s opposition), children in Hawaii are now required to also have a physical before beginning 7th grade. In other words, this isn’t even about annual physicals. This was about whether parents should be required to have their children have two physicals during childhood, or one.

Why are physicals important? Consider the story of Mariah Walton:

Mariah is 20 but she’s frail and permanently disabled. She has pulmonary hypertension and when she’s not bedridden, she has to carry an oxygen tank that allows her to breathe. At times, she has had screws in her bones to anchor her breathing device. She may soon have no option for a cure except a heart and lung transplant – an extremely risky procedure.

All this could have been prevented in her infancy by closing a small congenital hole in her heart. It could even have been successfully treated in later years, before irreversible damage was done. But Mariah’s parents were fundamentalist Mormons who went off the grid in northern Idaho in the 1990s and refused to take their children to doctors, believing that illnesses could be healed through faith and the power of prayer.

Doctors conducting well-child checks don’t just conduct a physical exam; they also ask a range of questions about a child’s health, diet, and development. Physicals are an important moment where health problems can be discovered and treatment discussed or arranged. Childhood is an especially important time for this, as children’s bodies are rapidly growing and changing and because there are conditions, like Mariah’s, that can only be corrected before a child reaches their full physical size.

As I noted, Michael Farris has recently joined the staff at the Alliance Defending Freedom. I have to wonder—whose freedom? Parents’ freedom? What about children’s freedom? Farris has long been a big promoter of parental rights, and has been instrumental in preventing the United States from ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do children have a right to medical care? Not in Farris’ book, it would seem.

I am not saying parents should get in trouble if they are unable to afford medical care for their children. They shouldn’t. Instead, we should work to minimize situations where that is the case. This is why health insurance companies are required to cover children’s annual checkups completely, meaning that they are not subject to a deductible or a copay. For its part, Medicaid currently covers children up to the 200% of poverty limit in many states. These provisions meet an important need.

I am all for empowering parents by making sure that they can afford to take their children to the doctor, but giving parents the authority decide whether their children ever need to see a doctor isn’t about empowering parents—it’s about infringing on children’s right to adequate medical care.

Look, I’m a parent myself. However, I don’t tend to look at my job as a parent from a “parental rights” framework the way Farris does. Instead, I tend to look at my job through a “parental responsibilities” framework. It is my responsibility, as my child’s parent, to ensure that their needs and their rights are met—their right to an education, their right to food and shelter, and their right to medical care, for starters.

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