Roger Pilon at Cato@Liberty is rightly troubled by the case of the parents of a 13 year-old refusing to have his cancer treated, and argues that the state is right to intervene.
The presumption is with parents, but it is not irrebuttable. Just as the state may interfere in family matters in the case of spousal or child abuse, so too it may in a case like this, where the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the long-term interests of the child are being ignored by a parent.
Will there be close calls in such cases? Of course. But on the facts presented here, this case does not appear to be a close call.
I share Roger’s reaction to the parents’ decision and, when thinking in terms of ideal theory, I see a strong case for government intervention. When we move into the real world, though, things are much more complicated. In this case, government intervention would be a good thing; in others, a bad thing. It would be nice if we could choose to intervene in parental sovereignty when and only when parents are acting in ways extremely harmful to their children. But this isn’t how politics works. Political results emerge from the interactions of political agents in an environment of formal and informal rules. We can’t simply specify the set of policies we want and have the government make it so, but rather create a system of rules which produces the best results all things considered.*
My suspicion is that it’s generally preferable to leave parental sovereignty intact. I worry that if government starts preventing parents from making obviously bad decisi0ns, it will slowly move into preventing more reasonable decisions. I can imagine many people seeing the failure to instill the fear of God in children as a form of abuse. If you really believe infidels are going to spend eternity in a fiery lake, abuse is probably a reasonable characterization. If there were an enforceable rule that government would only intervene in cases which are clearly justified (severe physical abuse, etc), I’d be all for it. I just don’t think any such rule exists. I’m generally in favour of insufficient government.
*Of course, it’s policy all the way down: constitutional decisions are themselves political and ‘we’ never literally make any decision as to the set of rules governing workaday politics.