Thursday, November 28, 2013

Conditional Autonomy and Safety

I often hear parents tout the right to body autonomy when we discuss topics like non-therapeutic circumcision of minors or ear piercing. This is a valid discussion, of course, but in the same breath some parents will say other types of intrusions of autonomy are acceptable. After all, the parent must make some decisions for a child, right?

This type of autonomy is conditional autonomy. It is something we activists rarely discuss because conditional autonomy causes arguments and frustration. This topic often divides us and that never helps children's and human rights causes. The problem is that some of us see other intrusions as a strike against autonomy while others are mired in their authoritarian and ownership culture so much so that they feel necessary to implement authority over another person's body even if that person is not in imminent danger. I do not mention this topic to condemn, but rather to bring to your attention some of the issues that apply to the topic of conditional autonomy.

Many activists that I know tell me that genital cutting is wrong, but "spanking" is perfectly fine. After all, those kids deserve it if they do not bend to the parent's will at first warning. The problem is that genital cutting is a one time thing, though it does draw blood and harm, and spanking may happen repeatedly. Both behaviors can get out of hand or harm. Neither behavior can be agreed to, via informed consent, by a minor. So why is it acceptable to do one and not the other?

This topic does not stop at spanking, but that is a prime example for conditional autonomy. This topic can extend to blood work, genital exams, hair cuts, time outs, forced learning, and more. If a child is not in danger, then he or she needs to make these choices even if very young. Recently a study came out with findings that show young infants have a sense of self. There are several sites, such as NPR, that reported this information. All three of my children could wash their bodies by age one and tell me if they wanted a doctor to examine them or not through words, sounds, and behaviors. It is my job to honor these wishes unless they are in imminent danger for some reason. They do own their bodies and I have no right to over turn their choices unless they are in danger.

Valuing the autonomy of others, especially our children, helps them learn that they can say "no" and that they need to accept another person telling them "no". This teaches children that others cannot force their will. This teaches the child not to harm others and not to accept harm from others. Each time we make a choice, especially one that affects autonomy, it can chip away or it can build up the child's concept of self ownership.  This is why we must value autonomy without conditions. I would much rather go to the dentist one hundred times than have my child learn, by being forced to lay there while scared or while being restrained, that his or her autonomy is conditional upon the wants of someone else.

I hope this topic opens a dialog within your life because it has absolutely changed the way in which I treat my children. As a result, my children are now more confident in themselves and they often stop bullying of others when they observe it. My children have been known to speak up and ask me for help even if an adult is bullying a child. This is not typical in our American culture, yet it is refreshing to see the next generation stand up against those who bully or harm.

 This is a different post I created some time ago due my observations of conditional autonomy.