Family advocates concerned with Senate report

  • May 4, 2007
OTTAWA - An all-party Senate report on children’s rights that recommends creating a children’s commissioner and abolishing spanking has raised concerns among some traditional family advocates.
"A children's commissioner could never replace a pro-active and comprehensive family policy," said Michele Boulva, director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF).   Boulva would like to see Canadian families supported in their "irreplaceable role and mission" through tax policies and other government programs. "Today, we find Canadian families are treated as an afterthought."

"I think the best commissioners for a child are mom and dad," said Dave Quist, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, an Ottawa-based think tank.

Entitled "Children: The Silenced Citizens" the report by the Senate human rights committee aims at bringing Canada more in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Canada in 1992.

"The whole idea that you've got some fundamental right to know who your biological parents are and be reared by them is not mentioned at all," said Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

Somerville notes that when the UN Convention was drawn up in 1989, assisted reproductive technologies were in their infancy. When the convention mentions parents, it assumes biological parenthood, she said. Not only has assisted-reproductive technology created potential biological relationships that were inconceivable previously, but also the advent of same-sex marriage in Canada has changed the definition of parenthood from its biological basis, to legal parenthood, a social and legal construct. Thus when the word "parent" is mentioned in the Senate report, it can mean any two people and that creates confusion, she said.

On a positive note, the report does recommend that adopted children have access to their biological parents' identities and medical information. It also recommends Assisted Human Reproduction Canada examine the regulations around sperm donation and identity to best serve children's interests. The recommendation arises from concerns that children of sperm donors might inadvertently marry blood relatives without this knowledge. Somerville said that no concern is raised about whether even creating this kind of circumstance is ethical or in the best interests of children.

She also noted that medical information is only part of what children need.  Studies have shown children have a deep longing to have "at least some contact with those people from whom they came."

The report's recommendations fail to address what she described as a "deep human need and longing" that "may spring from a primordial feeling of connection."

Somerville testified before the committee last year as it conducted two years of hearings on the issue. She had also recommended that children have the right to be born from one sperm and one gamete. She also recommended these sperm and gametes come from living adult parents, not harvested from the dead or from fetuses.  None of these recommendations are mentioned.

The report has been criticized not only for not going far enough on behalf of children, but also for recommendations that could undermine the role of the traditional family and see the state encroach on the parents' responsibility for children, something the UN Convention stresses states avoid.

"The state needs to recognize and respect the fact that parents are the first educators of their children," said Boulva. "Their role is irreplaceable and inalienable; it cannot be usurped by others."

The report's recommendation that Canada eliminate corporal punishment has sparked the most controversy. The report also seeks to protect children from bullying, sexual exploitation and other forms of violence, all considered positive steps. But it leaves one gaping omission — the protection of the unborn.

"Perhaps the publication of this Senate report is a good occasion to reflect on the fate of other ‛silenced citizens,' " Boulva said. "An inconceivable juridical void in our country has allowed for the free elimination of approximately three million future citizens of Canada over the past 36 years.

"Today, abundant scientific evidence confirms the humanity of the unborn. We cannot expect children's rights to be respected if we do not begin by respecting the first of all fundamental rights: the right to life."

Quist does not want to see the provision in the Criminal Code removed that permits spanking. "Spanking is definitely not abuse. Abuse of children is not acceptable in any way at all," he said.

He pointed out that countries that have abolished spanking have not had the results they had hoped for. The Swedish government has seen higher levels of youth violence and youth aggression since they introduced the non-spanking clause in that country, he said.

"Parents need to have parental authority in the raising of their children," he said. "The idea that the state can instil values and morals in children waters it down to a point that it becomes the lowest common denominator. As soon as the state starts to be responsible for the values of our children, I find that worrisome," he said.

According to figures in Reginald Bibby's 2004 The Future Families Project available through the Vanier Institute for the Family,  65 per cent of Canadians say spanking should be legal, but 60 per cent also say it should be discouraged.

Somerville, however, supports the recommendation of the repeal of the Criminal Code provision. She said doing so would not eliminate protection for spankings that were "mere trifles," not meeting the standards of assault. Allowing parents to assault their children is wrong, she said.

Children's rights requires a clear and consistent ethic where their rights are put first, she said, even if there are some risks some parents might be adversely affected by "busybody neighbours" or "nasty children" who report their parents to authorities.

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