Licensing Parents

Author: Ryan Jenkins
Category: Social and Political Philosophy, Ethics
Word Count: 1000

Most people think it’s obvious that we have a right to procreate and raise children. In fact, many people think reproductive rights are among the most important rights we have. After all, reproductive rights protect some of the most intimate acts between adults and many people think that rearing children is the greatest source of meaning and fulfillment in life. It’s hard to fathom a government with the arrogance to deny its citizens these rights.

At the same time, most of us think there are some situations where the government is justified in taking away someone’s children. Cases of extreme neglect or abuse come to mind – cases where people have demonstrated that they are not fit parents.

If it’s okay to take someone’s children away after the fact, could it ever be okay to deny them the right to raise children beforehand? One way of denying parents the opportunity to raise children would be to require them to procure a license to parent in the same way we require licenses to drive a car or own a handgun. Many would find this surprising, but perhaps there is a good argument for licensing parents.


Quickly, we should note that there’s a difference between the government restricting a person’s right to procreate and restricting her right to raise children. The first raises the specter of eugenics and forced sterilization. Those are dark chapters in humanity’s history – and not our focus here. Instead, we want to know whether a government can require that people obtain a license before they raise children. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but the difference here is between a government sterilizing its citizens – to take an extreme case – and merely requiring that they understand some basic principles of parenting before keeping the children they have.

One approach is to ask, “When do we think it is appropriate to require a license for an activity in general?” Then, with a general theory in hand, we could see whether parenting fits the mold. So, for example, Hugh LaFollette has suggested that we should require a license for activities that: (1) have a high potential to harm innocent people, (2) require some competence to perform, and where we (3) have a generally reliable method for determining that competence beforehand. Driving a car, for example, meets all three of these conditions, and so we require a person to obtain a license before she can legally drive a car. Likewise when a person seeks to purchase a gun, to perform surgery, or to practice law. LaFollettee then points out that parenting meets these criteria as well.

But there are some counterexamples to this approach: according to this view, we should also have to obtain licenses in order to go skiing – after all, there’s a possibility you could injure a bystander on your way down the slopes. By the same reasoning, a person should have to obtain a license to cook for her friends at home, at least to make sure she knows the proper way to prepare foods that could carry food-borne diseases. Yet it is outlandish to suggest that activities as mundane as cooking and skiing should be licensed. So LaFollette’s theory seems too restrictive.

But there is another approach, and that is to think about when we are justified in restricting a person’s rights. Imagine I have robbed you at gunpoint, causing you psychological harm. As a result, the government takes my guns away. When I cause you some harm, I forfeit my right to own a gun. The right to own a gun is controversial, but if anything can overturn that right, it would be committing a grave harm with your gun. At any rate, we can suppose this is true for the time being.

Now, imagine that we have some way of being very confident, in advance, that I will exercise my right to own a gun in a way that causes harm. If we could be very confident about that, and if the harm I was likely to commit was grave enough, it seems we would be justified in revoking my right in advance. That is, the government wouldn’t need to wait until I’ve already harmed you to take my right away. The government could be proactive, instead, and prevent that harm altogether. Even though the government has revoked my right in this case, it did so to prevent a grave harm, and that seems justified.

Consider another example: If I have assaulted someone, the government restricts my freedom of movement by imprisoning me. If the government could be confident that I was going to assault someone, it would be justified in restricting my freedom of movement ahead of time. This is just what the government does when it places a restraining order on me. A restraining order revokes some of my freedom of movement, but only because the government is fairly confident I would use that freedom in a way that harms someone. Again, restraining orders seem justified.

The same principle could justify a government requirement to license parents before they raise children. We already recognize a class of sufficiently grave harms, harms so severe that inflicting them on your children forfeits your right to raise children. This class of sufficiently grave harms includes sexual or physical abuse and extreme neglect. If someone does this to her children, she has forfeited her right to raise them. If we have reason in advance to believe she would inflict any of those harms on her children, it is plausible that we are permitted to override her right to raise children before she actually inflicts those harms.

Notice that we already think it is not just acceptable, but a good idea to screen parents before they adopt a child. Perhaps we should apply the same logic to biological parents that we do to adoptive parents in the hopes of preventing harms to children. Thus what began as a controversial – even outrageous – position may turn out more plausible than we thought.


LaFollette, Hugh. “Licensing parents.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 9.2 (1980): 182-197.

About the Author

Ryan Jenkins is an associate professor of philosophy and a senior fellow at the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He studies the ethics of emerging technologies, especially automation, cyber war, autonomous weapons, and driverless cars. His work has appeared in journals such as Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, and the Journal of Military Ethics, as well as public fora including Slate and Forbes. 

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