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Why we do this

What should be the minimum age to get a library card without a parent's signature? How old should you have to be to get medical care without your parents' consent? At what age should your parents no longer be allowed to pull you out of sex education classes at school, or even pull you out of the whole school? I think that most people have never thought seriously about the answers to these questions.

Some people's answer to all of these is, "18, because lots of other people think so." This is usually phrased in fancier language -- "We as a society have determined", "Our civilization has decided", etc. -- but those are really just different ways of saying "Lots of other people think so." The problem with this is that if you defend your beliefs by merely agreeing with people around you, that leads down some bizarre paths. Suppose you live in a state where it's illegal for minors to get an abortion without parental permission, and you support that law. Then you move to a state where abortion for minors is legal. Do you now change your beliefs because you moved? If you're an American woman and you move to Saudi Arabia, do you forget that you ever had any "beliefs", and start trying to forget how to read? It's one thing to say that you should follow the laws of the country or state that you live in, but hopefully you wouldn't change your own personal views depending on where you lived, if your views mean anything to you at all. Or to put it another way, if your answer to some question is "lots of other people think so", the obvious question is, "Why do you agree with them?"

Why, for example, don't minors have the right -- from, say, age 13 onward -- to read whatever books and watch whatever movies they want? Not because they can't handle it -- in practice, most teenagers are allowed to read and watch whatever they want, and they turn out fine. In that case, is there any reason why it shouldn't be a right for all of them, instead of just the ones whose parents are cool?

Yes, it's true that teenagers don't pay a lot of taxes and are usually freeloading off their parents. But that's not because teenagers are lazy or dumb, it's because they're forced to work all day in school for free. If you took a bus driver's license away and made him study Biology and American History for 10 hours a day, he'd have to move back in with his parents too. This is not to say that school is a waste of time; on the contrary, the whole point of school is that you're investing in yourself, just like a building company owner is investing for the future when they start constructing a new apartment complex. The huge difference, though, is that the building company owner is allowed to enjoy the fruits of their investment right away (getting paid a company salary while the apartments are still being built), but students aren't allowed to get paid while they're investing in themselves. So students may have to live off their parents, but that's only because they're forced to work without getting paid for their investment in themselves, which is hardly their fault. Besides, there are other people -- trophy wives, the homeless, some college students, and various overlaps between those groups -- who really are freeloading off of other people and not directly paying taxes, and hardly anyone argues for taking their civil rights away. So if that's not the real reason for most restrictions on minors' rights, then are there other reasons?

For example, it's probably a good thing that parents have the right to stop their five-year-old kids from watching gory movies, because they would give the kids nightmares -- that's an actual reason, which is why you rarely see lawyers arguing in court for the First Amendment rights of five-year-olds to rent Saw III. On the other hand, studies show that letting parents veto sex education in schools, increases the risk of teenagers having sex for the first time without protection, which would be a strong argument for treating students' access to sex education as a basic right. Perhaps you might find an argument in the other direction -- maybe students who have more sex (even safe sex) get less studying done. (I don't know if any studies show that, but in that case, I would ask if adults who have more sex also get less work done -- and in both cases, whether the tradeoff isn't worth it anyway.) The point is to try and figure out where to draw the line, by weighing the pros and cons of drawing the line at different ages, instead of just saying, "Minors shouldn't have any say until they're 18, because it's always been that way."

Some other examples: the FAA doesn't let passengers under 15 sit in the exit row of an airplane. This is probably a reasonable rule since (a) they picked 15, which has no legal significance, so they must have thought that really was the appropriate age, and (b) it is not a big deal to be asked to move out of the exit row on a plane. On the other hand, most libraries won't give you a library card if you're under 18 without your parents' signature. Is there a real reason for that? Librarians say it's because without a parent's signature, the library can't collect on the money that a minor owes them if the minor loses a book. But couldn't minors just put down a cash deposit for whatever book they're checking out, and get it back when they return it? Besides, if the law doesn't let libraries collect debts from minors, isn't that the law that should be changed?

If you want to know whether minors can handle a particular right, like the right to read whatever books and watch whatever movies they want, why not just look at how people under 18 handle it already? Can minors handle the responsibility for their own library cards? Why not just ask the ones who already have one? Or, if you had told people 15 years ago that someday there would be a global computer network that kids could use to access ALL THE PORN IN THE WORLD right from their OWN HOUSE, many people would have been horrified. Now that it's been around for 10 years, there's no evidence that it has affected kids' well-being -- so having a "debate" about whether people under 18 can handle being on the Internet, is a bit silly at this point, because we already know that they can.

On the other hand, some moral questions can't be answered by studies. Take a controversial topic like abortion for minors without parental consent. Now, as for the morality of abortion itself, this seems to me like an unanswerable question -- if you believe that killing a 1-year-old child is murder, but using contraception is not, that means somewhere in between those two points you have to draw the line where you think "murder" begins, and no matter where you draw it, someone could ask why you don't move it a week earlier or a week later. But surely, whether it's murder or not, doesn't depend on whether you have your parents' permission! I remember a Christian Coalition press release about a state's new parental consent law which said, "The decision to terminate a pregnancy -- and indeed a life -- should not be made without parental involvement." It's probably safe to say that whoever wrote that sentence didn't actually mean what it said -- that the decision to "end a life" is OK if your parents sign off on it? I guess that means that if you get arrested for shooting a convenience store clerk, you'd better have that note from your Mom. Abortion in a given situation is either right or wrong, but it's absurd to say that it's only wrong if you're under 18 and your parents object.

I don't have final answers to any of these questions, but the point is to spark discussion of civil rights for minors in terms of benefits, drawbacks, evidence, and reasons other than "We've always done it that way." Personally I think that if we followed these principles, then all students would be able to get accurate sex education, responsible teenagers would be able to get their own bank accounts, abortion rights would not depend on age, and everybody would have their own library card. You might argue for different conclusions. But at least weighing the pros and cons gives some framework to the discussion that allows it to get somewhere.

- Bennett