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Should Parents Be Licensed?

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Should Parents Be Licensed?: Debating the Issues

Prometheus  2004

Would-be teachers are generally required to study fulltime for at least eight months before the state will allow them the responsibility of educating children for six hours a day. Many would say we have set the bar too low. And yet we haven’t even set the bar as high — in fact we haven’t set a bar at all — for parents. Should there be a national parenting policy, including mandatory parenthood training and screening of prospective parents?

In this informative and thought-provoking collection of articles, experts from the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, law, political science, public health, sociology, and anthropology consider the many issues involved in licensing parents. Following a thorough introduction to these issues, editor Peg Tittle presents the contributions in three major sections. The first part focuses on parenting, presenting several proposals for licensing, then taking a closer look at the problem of assessing nurturing skills, drawing on work done in the areas of custody, adoption, and new reproductive technologies.

The second part focuses on parentage, exploring the moral acceptability of passing on genetic disease, as well as the moral implications of genetic engineering.

The third part examines in greater detail objections and replies to the concept of licensing parents. Does everyone have the right to have children? Should contraception ever be mandatory? Should prenatal abuse be criminalized?

The informed debate on these and many other perplexing questions presented in this stimulating book will help to clarify this increasingly important issue.

For the record, as soon as I saw the cover of this book, I contacted the publisher, objecting to what I perceived to be a black-skinned baby and asking for some sort of neutral cover instead (babies of all kinds or no babies at all).  They assured me that it was just the jpg that came across that way; on the actual cover, the baby appeared ambiguous, they said.  Once I received the actual book, I saw that they were wrong: at least to my eye, the baby does look black-skinned.  Rest assured that none of the articles I have included in this book advocate licensing specifically for black-skinned people (nor do I advocate that).

Available in print, at Amazon and Book Depository.


YES! Yes they should!! But then that gets into a whole mess of what the licensing requirements should be and who approves them and who decides what makes a good parent… And how do you keep people from having children without licenses… It ends up being scary either way.  This book was a great collection of essays from several viewpoints on the topic and gave me a lot of profound over-the-(TV-)dinner-(tray-)table conversations with my husband.

Lauren Cocilova, 5/5 stars on


Most of us can biologically produce children – no questions asked. This book asks the question – SHOULD everyone have the right to bear and raise children. After all, those who wish to adopt or foster children have to undergo very rigorous screening. Other people who wish to look after children, such as teachers for example, need to go through years of studying and training before they are able to take on the responsibility of educating children. But parents who bring children into this world – who are responsible for educating them, influencing them and generally affecting their futures – are not required to prove their ability at all. This book asks the basic question – should they be?

This book has some provocative articles and asks some very uncomfortable questions. Examples are: should people with serious genetic defects be allowed to reproduce? Should contraception be made compulsory to prevent some people from reproducing? Why, or why not? What kind of legislation could or should be introduced? How effective would it be?

As a mother I would feel very uncomfortable and indignant even if anyone questioned my right and ability to be a parent. However, I am also aware of so many children being raised in institutions because their parents/family system cannot do so for a variety of reasons. Similarly there are so many children in society who are abused or neglected. Since many of these children will eventually be looked after by the public, via our taxes, institutions, teachers, nurses, social workers etc – shouldn’t we be asking these uncomfortable questions? This affects us all.

I found the articles to be evenly balanced and the reading very thought-provoking.

Jasmine Guha,


“Should Parents be Licensed? Debating the Issues” is a thought-provoking collection of articles by a range of experts in such diverse disciplines as psychiatry, law, health and anthropology.

Using a well-balanced approach to the topic, the book focuses on the arguments both for and against licensing and includes some actual proposals for licensing parents. Furthermore, it also explores implications of genetic engineering.

For me, it brought the many complex issues surrounding the licensing of parents into better perspective. And, as several authors suggested, the question about licensing parents is clearly anachronistic.

Why? Because we already license parents. not biological parents, of course. But you can be sure you will be evaluated and licensed if you wish to raise someone else’s child.

Day-care providers, teachers, foster parents and adoptive parents all must prove themselves competent to responsibly handle children before they can be licensed.

On the other hand, if you’re a natural parent, responsible for a child’s safety, education, values and beliefs, you don’t have to know anything about child development or healthy child rearing. You don’t even have to read a pamphlet about bringing up children.

Yet, those who argue against licensing parents include John. A. Robertson, professor of law at the University of Texas school of Law at Austin. He says that procreative liberty is essential so that people capable of raising a child are not denied their rights.

On the other side are those such as Jack Westman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who argue that allowing anybody to raise children results in an unnecessary human and economic toll on our society.

As is pointed out by several authors, licensing parents – perhaps an idea who se time has come – would only restrain those parents who abuse their children.

Good parents are those who want to learn more about child development and child rearing. And they would more than likely welcome licensing.

James Windell, The Daily Oakland Press


Reading about parents who entomb their babies in cement or who abandon their children as a matter of course makes me think that Peg Tittle is on to something.

The Ontario, Canada writer and former philosophy professor is the editor of a collection of essays called Should Parents Be Licensed? Debating the Issues.

The name is provocative enough.  But listen to the titles of some of the pieces included in the book: “Can Having Children Be Immoral?”  “Is There a Natural Right to Have Children?”  “The Mythology of Family Planners.”

Granted, these are some of the more incendiary ideas included in the book, published last summer by Prometheus Books.

When you hear about the abominable things parents are capable of doing to their children, though, drastic measures seem less objectionable.

An Ontario County Court judge this week wrapped up the criminal case against the father who helped hide his wife’s murder of their newborn by concealing the body in a tub of concrete.  Brian DeBeer was sentences to 1/3 to 7 years in prison for hindering prosecution.

His wife is already serving 30 years to life for killing the newborn and another infant, whom she said she disposed of without her husband’s knowledge.

But the story may not end there.  The father’s attorney has said the daddy wants custody of the couple’s three other children, including one born while the mother was in prison.

In another case of parenting gone wrong, the troubled mother whom a Monroe county judge famously ordered not to reproduce was in court again this week.

Sort of, anyway.  Stephanie Pendleton didn’t appear for a hearing on Monday where Family Court Judge Marilyn O’Connor terminated her parental rights to a toddler son.  Three other children, all born with cocaine in their systems, are with relatives.

These are the kinds of egregious child abuse cases that advocates say could be avoided through parental licensing, a concept from the early 1970s that periodically makes its way back.

The debate on how to regulate human cloning is what got Tittle thinking that maybe rules should be applied to all parents.

She saw an inconsistency in making regulations for cloning humans and, say, putting potential adoptive parents through a rigorous screening process while giving biological parents a pass.

“Why should we set the bar higher if we’re going to create life this way rather than another way?” she tells me by phone.

Tittle supports a mild form of licensing; maybe potential parents would have to prove maturity (i.e., age) and knowledge (i.e., a parenting course).

There’s not much support for these or other ideas in the book supporting parental licensing.

Denise-Marie Santiago, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle


Procreation is a natural part of being human; indeed, it’s a natural part of life in general. It may not be one of those things that “simply happens,” but it does happen without always a great deal of forethought and preparation. There are some who argue, though, that it should – not simply preparation in the sense of planning on the part of the couple, but also on the part of the state. There are some who argue that parents should be licensed.

•  Collection of articles on whether the state should control procreation
•  Many provide arguments for why parenthood shouldn’t be a right
•  Offers interesting perspectives that should be considered

•  A lot of interesting essays you won’t easily find elsewhere

•  Very controversial and touchy subject

Because parenthood is regarded as one of the most natural things in the world, most people will react very negatively to any suggestion that a license should be required before being allowed to procreate. That would be like forcing people to have a license in order to breathe or walk – being a parent is a right rather than a privilege such as driving. But should it be?

We must keep in mind that there is a lot at stake for the children themselves. When a two people become parents, there is suddenly at least one more individual whose interests must be taken into consideration: the child. Shouldn’t children only be born into homes where they are wanted? Shouldn’t children only be born into homes where the parents know what they are doing, know how to raise kids, and can provide the children with a psychologically and emotionally healthy atmosphere? Of course – no one can deny that this would be ideal. The question is, should the state do anything to legally enforce it?

This is the central theme in Peg Tittle’s book Should Parents Be Licensed? Debating the Issues. This is not a subject that is debated very much, which would explain why this is one of the only books available right now that addresses it. It’s a very emotional issue because, as I noted above, so many people treat procreation as a right that shouldn’t be closely regulated by the government. Even a suggestion that there be licensing and regulation can be met with aggressive attacks.

Although such a reaction may be understandable, there are fair reasons for at least raising the matter. As I also noted above, we can’t ignore the fact that once people become parents, there are automatically other interests involved. The government doesn’t have any outside rights to protect that would justify regulating people’s sexual activity, but there are outside rights to protect that could affect whether people go so far as to have children.

We have to face the fact that there are people out there who are parents and who probably shouldn’t be. They may lack the intellectual, the emotional, or the psychological resources to raise children properly. Being a parent isn’t easy – it’s not for everyone, even though there are social pressures in society for everyone to have kids. Thus, the question isn’t so much whether some people should refrain from having kids or even should be encouraged to refrain from having kids. Instead, the question is whether the state should step in enforce such an ideal.

The first hurdle to a licensing scheme would be coming up with a means that would prevent people from having unapproved children, a hurdle which may not be as tough as it first appears. In one article, Roger McIntire describes a fictional scenario in which a drug can permanently prevent conception until an antidote is created. Such a product would be incredibly popular, but it would raise the question of control. The state could, for example, restrict access to the antidote. It wouldn’t take many steps to force everyone to take the contraceptive and keep the antidote out of the hands of any but those who passed a test.

Here, though, we come up against the larger hurdles that would inhibit the creation of a licensing system: what sorts of skills get tested, what sorts of standards will be enforced, and what sorts of tests will exist? This sounds at first like insurmountable hurdles until you remember that they already exist and are already enforced. People already accept the role of the state in deciding who does and does not deserve to be a parent when it comes to custody cases, foster care, and adoption. Roger McIntyre writes:

  • “Can you imagine the public outcry that would occur if adoption agencies offered their children on a first-come-first-served basis, with no screening process for applicants? Imagine some drunk stumbling up and saying, “I’ll take that cute little blond-haired girl over there.””

We could also describe a similar scenario in the context of cloning human beings. Someday this will be possible, but do you really think that it will happen without state regulation? On the contrary, there will be all kinds of regulations. Those doing the cloning will have to ensure that they don’t create human beings who are sick or will be suffering from chronic pain. Cloners will have to provide good reasons for what they are doing — they won’t be allowed to create their own armies, for example, or clone for the sake of personal gratification.

In other words, we don’t permit irresponsible adoption and we wouldn’t permit the irresponsible creation of human life via cloning. Nevertheless, we do permit irresponsible parenthood and creation of life through natural means. Isn’t there a bit of a contradiction there? If people don’t have a right to adopt and don’t have a right to create life via cloning, why do we think that they have a right to create life via sexual reproduction? What is it about the creation of life that would qualify as a “right” in the first place? Surely it can’t be a “right” merely because it is a natural activity.

Even if it is a right, though, no right is absolute. Is there a right to have children who would suffer from serious, painful, and debilitating diseases? Is there a right to have children that is completely decoupled from your responsibility to properly and adequately raise it? These are all very good and interesting questions — questions that are addressed, even if not completely answered, by authors represented in the book.

The subject of licensing parents is more likely to attract outrage and derision than serious reflection or debate. This is understandable, but it’s also unfortunate. People have been procreating for millennia without government interference, so why should we start now? The age of a practice is not, however, an argument on behalf of its validity. Perhaps we can do better than our ancestors. Perhaps the arguments in favor of some licensing scheme are better than those against — but you’ll have to seriously listen to and reflect upon them first before you can reach that conclusion.

Austin Cline,


You need a licence to drive a car, own a gun or fish for trout. You don’t need a licence to raise a child.

But maybe you should.

At least that’s the opinion of Peg Tittle, a writer/philosopher who has edited a new book of essays called Should Parents be Licensed?

“I don’t think the creation of life should be chaotic, unplanned, accidental or passionate,” says Tittle.

“Sex can be all that – but not creating a life.”

A local parenting expert, however, is aghast at the idea.

“You can’t mess with this,” says Karen Goldthorp, who helps parents hone child-raising skills with her Stratford-based company, Keys in Developing Solutions (KIDS). “This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Tittle’s new book (published by Prometheus Books) contains about two dozen essays by various experts, including psychologists, lawyers and sociologists.

And though their topics range from genetic engineering to prenatal abuse, Tittle says they all agree on one thing: That though we devote much time and talk to the idea of ending a life (including abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia), we are far too laissez-faire about starting it.

“There should be some notion of responsibility, intentionality and deliberateness,” she says.

Anyone who attended this week’s domestic violence conference at the London Convention Centre (or anyone who follows the news) would know one painful fact: There are a lot of broken people out there.

And a lot of that damage – damage that is, in many cases, largely irreversible – occurs during the first few years of a child’s life.

Indeed, a new study at the University of Western Ontario pegs the financial costs of child abuse in Canada at more than $15 billion, including more than $1.1 billion in social services, $600 million in judicial costs, $222 million in health costs and almost $24 million in special education services.

To be honest, it takes nothing more than a trip to the local mall to confirm there are a lot of lousy parents. (Not you, of course. And definitely not me.)

So what do we do?

Tittle suggests potential parents should meet some minimal requirements: They must be 18 or older, they must not be addicted to drugs or hooked on booze and they must complete a course in child development.

Tittle also agrees with one of the essayists in her book, who suggests that adolescents should be required to submit to a contraceptive vaccine (a concept Tittle says is more dependable than current contraceptives and which, she suggests, would be technically feasible if only enough money were poured into research).

“That changes the default mode – you have to do something intentional to have kids,” she says. “At the very least, you have to go to the drugstore to get the antidote.”

But Tittle bristles at the suggestion some alcoholics and heroin addicts have straightened out when faced with the prospect of parenthood.

“You don’t create a little human being to be your personal rehab program,” she says, adding she’s leery of most of the motives people profess for having kids. “This idea of using someone else for your joy, or for proof of your maturity, or for your satisfaction or fulfilment – there’s something morally suspect about that. That’s using a human being.”

Tittle says she isn’t sure how society would treat unlicensed parents. “That’s an implementation problem. We could be draconian and say any unlicensed kids are taken away from their parents, but that’s the extreme.”

She says she’s wary that licensing parents could lead to licensing only certain kinds of parents – such as only those who are white, rich, Christian, etc. And she insists most parents would meet – and indeed welcome – such requirements.

“We don’t have to license only the best parents,” says Tittle, who is childless by choice. “We just have to not license the worst.”

But in Stratford, child-rearing expert Goldthorp argues parenting is a lot like life – chaotic, imperfect and filled with flaws.

“I think there are no mistakes – I think that’s how we learn,” says Goldthorp. “Don’t you believe we all came here with our own gift to offer? You have to be allowed to stumble and fall.”

Ian Gillespie, London Free Press


One of the most comprehensive works about the idea of restricting breeding is Peg Tittle’s book Should Parents be Licensed? Debating the Issues. It’s a balanced collection of essays by experts with various views on the subject.”

Zoltan Istvan,


For the sake of your child,a step forward to increase birth rate of healthy infants,to attain population sustainability.

Does this proposal of mine enrage you? Go ahead, hate me. Call me vile names like “baby killer.” Or simply “Eugenicist.” I don’t care. I know I have a point.

It’s clear to each one of us that 15-year-old intoxicated half-wits can easily spawn, but should they? Hell no. I plead, Let’s control human breeding. Let’s keep babies away from buffoons, and let’s test fetuses meticulously to guarantee healthy infants. No one should be permitted to reproduce unless and until they pass a series of tests.

Philosophers, psychologists, and social workers have advanced this idea for 30+ years, notably Hugh LaFollette in his seminal essay, “Licensing Parents” (1980), and Peg Tittle, editor of Should Parents Be Licensed? (2004). Their suggested reform—based on humanitarian concerns for the rights of children—is always booed down hysterically with the shrill vocabulary that I listed above.

But the reformers are right. Completely. Ethically. I agree with Joseph Fletcher, who notes, “It is depressing…to realize that most people are accidents,” and with George Schedler, who states, “Society has a duty to ensure that infants are born free of avoidable defects.” Traditionalists regard pregnancy and parenting as a natural right that should never be curtailed. But what’s the result of this laissez-faire attitude? Catastrophic suffering. Millions of children born disadvantaged, crippled in childhood, destroyed in adolescence. Procreation cannot be classified as a self-indulgent privilege—it needs to be viewed as a life-and-death responsibility.

It took the US 200 years to go from 7 babies per family to two. “Bangladesh has done that in 20. Iran has more than halved its fertility rate in a decade.” (Carl Haub – Population Reference Bureau)

if they could practice family planning, 22 million abortions, 142,000 pregnancy-related deaths, and 1.4 million infant deaths each year could be prevented.

Look at it this way: Do adoption centers allow knuckleheads to walk out with a child? Aren’t they maintaining standards that should apply to every wannabe parent?
Below I’ve drafted a list of atrocious situations caused by fallacious individuals who should not be allowed to impregnate, inseminate, fertilize, and parent because they’re mentally, physically, emotionally, or genetically unsuitable for the ambitious ,arduous task.

No Family below a minimum family income
No Couples below Specified age limits
No Couples with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
No Teen Mothers
No Drug Addicted couples
No parent with Genetically transmitted Severe Mental and Physical Liabilities

No Dangerous Religious Fanatics: In certain religious regions, people still carry archaic methods of living, where parents believe that their daughters should be beaten or murdered if they shame the family name by engaging in premarital sex. Licensing Exams need to include questions that ferret out the religio-cultural nuts who will grievously harm their offspring if old fangled dictums are disobeyed.

Imagine, please, all the benefits our society could deliver to children if the billions of dollars that we allocate annually to repair the damage done by wretched parents were spent on something else… Education, perhaps. Free College? Free PreSchool? Superior Public Schools?

Or maybe… the billions saved could just be divided up and delivered in hefty stipends? Thousands of dollars—sent to the licensed parents—to aid them in the nurturing of their children.

Abhimanyu Singh Rajput, Social Tikka


Tittle has done a good job of putting together a wide variety of articles from notable scholars. … While  issues concerning sexuality and family are private to some extent, private decisions in this area affect the lives of others. Whether legislation is needed to prevent some individuals from parenting or procreating, or whether an overhaul of education would suffice, is worth much thought.

Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Department of Philosophy, Purdue University