TwinsThere are issues over which libertarians disagree: abortion, capital punishment, roads, and children being amongst the things that can set brother against brother in a fight of biblical proportions. And sometimes it might look like libertarian ideals clash.

Libertarians believe in religious freedom. This is simply an extension of the right to freedom of thought and of speech: people are free to think, believe and say whatever nonsense they so desire. If you want to believe that the earth is flat then that’s really up to you, but you must accept also my right to freedom of thought when I think you’ve got the intellectual power of a dung beetle for believing such a thing. If you want to tell me that Allah will send me to a fiery Hell to drink boiling pus for a gazillion years and more then I reserve the right to think you’re as mad as a bag of eels.

But, what happens when religious freedom clashes with other rights? Last week in Dublin a couple were due to have twins, but due to a medical anomaly the twins would require a blood transfusion in order to survive. That’s not a terribly contentious point in the way that, say, abortion is. However, being Jehovah’s Witnesses, this issue vexed this couple quite a bit due to an article of faith that forbids them to undergo blood transfusions (or any procedure that might involve ingesting blood from another being, human or animal).

Claiming to be acting in the spirit of Christian love the couple refused to give their consent to the blood transfusion. Instead, in the spirit of religious wackiness and dogged clinging to bizarre doctrines regardless of consequence and good sense, they were prepared to let their babies die to appease a God who, allegedly, gives a shit about you having a blood transfusion, as if running the bloody universe didn’t occupy enough of His time.

In any event the parents were over-ruled. The doctors were not about to allow two premature babies die for want of a blood transfusion, so they took the case to court. Last week the High Court in Dublin ruled that the doctors could give a blood transfusion to the babies after they are born despite the fact that the parents did not consent to the procedure. The expectant mother wrote to Ms Justice Laffoy to say that she and her husband loved their children with all their hearts and did not want to cause them harm [?], but that they could not consent to the transfusion because of their long-held religious beliefs. She did, however, state that despite refusing to give consent she and her husband would not interfere with the court’s decision on the matter, but asked if alternatives could be exhausted first.

The judge ruled that if a blood transfusion was deemed medical necessary then doctors were permitted to use it. Despite the babblings of the parents about loving their children and not wanting to cause them harm, we could not interpret their choice in any other way than as causing – quite deliberately – the deaths of their two children had they had the final say in the matter.

Was the court right to interfere in a case of religious freedom and parental rights?

Yes, is the simple answer. In fact, the court weren’t really interfering with anyone’s religious beliefs at all. The court in this case was making a determination about two unborn babies, who of course did not hold any religious beliefs whatsoever. The parents may have been Jehovah’s Witnesses but the unborn twins weren’t. No-one should have to die because of the religious beliefs of any other person. I said at the start that people are entitled to believe whatever nonsense they want. Moreover, people are entitled to practice whatever they want: be it sado-masochism, jumping out of aeroplanes without a parachute, drinking poison, sliding down a 50 foot razor blade and using their balls for brakes, if they so desire. But the minute those practices infringe the fundamental rights of non-consenting parties then government and/or the courts can intervene.

Some libertarians might disagree with me and reply that parents own their own children and therefore should have the final say in the matter. I don’t agree with the concept of ownership being applied to the relationship between parent and child. I might own a car, and as the owner of that car I can drive it, smash it to bits, send it flying off a cliff, or drive it at high speed at frightened socialists. It’s mine and if I wish to destroy it I can. But the same cannot be said for a child. I cannot kill my own child if I so desire, I can’t send him flying off a cliff or smash him to bits with a hammer. A better term for the child-parent relationship is “responsibility” – not ownership. A parent is responsible for a child. A child – certainly a young child or baby – cannot fend for itself, they cannot earn money, make decisions, or support themselves. Someone must do it for them. Parents are responsible for their well-being, and as such are liable if they cause or negligently allow their children to come into harm. Consider a parent of a 6 year old who decided that their religion dictated that they must fast for 40 days and so must their child. The child starves to death. Should a parent not be held criminal responsible for the death? I think it’s quite obvious that they should. And there’s no reason why the law shouldn’t prescribe certain standards of behaviour with respect to parents: when the physical well-being and life of a child is at stake. It’s a legitimate government function to protect the rights of its citizens from being harmed without their consent, and when it comes to children there are cases when government interference might be justified in a way that it wouldn’t be with respect to adults.

I have no beef with parents who wish to bring their children up within certain belief systems – be they theistic or atheistic – and I don’t think the government should interfere and dictate what parents must or must not teach their children: that way lies Orwell’s 1984. Parents are, and should be, responsible for their children’s education. Children will grow up soon enough and when they do they will become responsible for their own belief system. They can decide whether or not they wish to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, or Jedi Knights. Furthermore they can decide to follow whatever religious dictates they so desire and accept the consequences: so if an adult JW would rather die than accept a blood transfusion then that’s their call, and doctors shouldn’t force the patient against their own beliefs. But in the case of a newborn baby there are no religious beliefs and the right to life trumps parental authority on the grounds that the right to life cannot be overridden by the beliefs – however sincerely held – of someone else.