What parents are really getting from the GOP's 'parents' rights' agenda

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Editor’s Note: Mary Ziegler (@maryrziegler) is the Martin Luther King Professor of Law at UC Davis and the author of “Dollars for Life: The Antiabortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment.” Naomi Cahn (@naomicahn) is Justice Anthony M. Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Law, Nancy L. Buc ’69 Research Professor in Democracy and Equity and co-director of the Family Law Center at the University of Virginia School of Law. The views expressed here are those of the authors. Read more opinion on CNN.


“Parents decide what their children get to learn.” So said a school board chair at a charter school in Florida after its principal was forced to resign following complaints that sixth-grade students were shown pictures of Michelangelo’s classic statue of “David” without parents being given advance warning. Barney Bishop III told CNN that “we are going to make sure the concept of parental rights is supreme in Florida and at our charter school.”

Mary Ziegler

Naomi Cahn

It’s no coincidence that in his comments, Bishop also voiced support for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, a bill that restricts classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, into law last year. DeSantis is among several of the big names in the shadow Republican primary unfolding in public life who have shot to the top of American politics by claiming to defend the rights of parents.

Glenn Youngkin, the Virginia governor, won a swing state with views that included “parents matter.” In his first campaign visit to Iowa, Donald Trump similarly promised to “bring parental rights back into our school system.” Early in her campaign for president, Nikki Haley claimed that the Florida bill didn’t go “far enough,” and she has condemned critical race theory.

Republicans often present these claims as a response to “woke” excesses on issues from abortion to critical race theory, but these arguments for parental rights reflect a coherent strategy that cuts across the American culture wars.

For example, Idaho is considering legislation that would ban “abortion trafficking”, making it a crime to take a minor out of the state to access abortion care without parental involvement. Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, who may block access to the abortion pill nationwide, held in December (in a different case) that the federal government’s plan providing birth control to low-income and uninsured families did not give parents sufficient control over the health decision-making of their minor children.

When Tennessee banned drag performances in front of children earlier this month, the Tennessee Senate Majority Leader explained that this “gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance.”

Lawmakers in conservative states claiming to act in the name of parental rights are considering laws similar to Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which restricts how race can be discussed in school. The Republican-controlled US House of Representatives even voted last Friday to pass the “Parents Bill of Rights Act,” which would require schools to post their curriculum and a list of library books and would also prevent elementary and middle schools from changing a child’s gender pronouns (or preferred name) without parental consent.

What’s behind the appeal to parental control? It may come down to the Constitution: the courts have recognized a constitutional right for parents to steer the upbringing of children. That’s certainly a legitimate concern. The Supreme Court has confirmed that parental decision making is entitled to “special weight,” and states defer to parental choices in most contexts, short of abuse and neglect.

But the GOP’s new parental rights strategy must be understood in historical context: in the past, similar tactics were used to delegitimize the choices minors were making and create an opening wedge to attack the rights of adults who make those same choices.

Moreover, by elevating the rights of some parents, they are devaluing those who do want their children to learn about slavery at school or help their children explore their gender identities.

To be sure, claims of parental rights have also been used to challenge a system in which Black mothers and LGBTQ families face excessive state intervention, an over-policing that results in a higher rate of Black children removed from their homes through the abuse and neglect system and that fails to recognize lesbian parental rights. But these critiques have been raised in very different contexts—often by parents in court rather than by state legislators—and they have failed to capture national attention or make significant reforms in the way that recent conservative parental rights strategies already have.

When questions of racial segregation landed in the federal courts in the 1950s, conservatives developed very different arguments about parental rights. In fights to preserve segregation, white, middle class parents invoked parental rights and family autonomy from the 1950s to the 1970s, even as parents of color felt that their own rights were being given short shrift.

Later in the 1970s, Anita Bryant, a celebrity of the religious right, borrowed from segregationist parental rights rhetoric, launching a group called Save Our Children that successfully fought to roll back civil rights ordinances for gays and lesbians. The anti-abortion movement adopted a parental rights strategy too, proposing state laws requiring parental notification or consent.

In the 1980s, conservative Christians launched a home-school movement and demanded a parental rights amendment to the Constitution, and the Reagan Administration issued a rule requiring federally funded birth control clinics to notify parents whose children were receiving contraception.

In the 1990s, the Christian Coalition and allied groups angry about sex education and information about HIV/AIDS promoted bills in Congress and 28 states providing that “[t]he right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.”

These claims made sense when many conservatives were unsure about the wisdom of directly attacking the legitimacy of integration, gay rights or the other issues of the day. Focusing on parental prerogatives was easier, and seemingly appealed to Americans who had not yet made up their minds, or who did not wish to appear bigoted. But parental rights arguments have also served as an opening to target the rights of adults as well as minors.

Often, after all, some conservatives suggested that parents not only have a right to object to something but also that their objections have some basis in fact—that minors are being groomed, exploited or harmed.

It is then no surprise that parental rights strategies are back. Led by Gen Z, support for abortion rights, equality for LGTBQ Americans and racial justice is growing. A record number of Americans in a recent Gallup poll supported same-sex marriage, and a growing number of American adults identify as LGTBQ. Especially after the Dobbs decision removing the federal protection for abortion, more Americans are identifying as pro-choice than almost ever before, and the number of Americans who think abortion should be illegal is hitting all-time lows.

Focusing on parental authority may be an attractive alternative for conservatives uncomfortable with these shifts, especially if they want to avoid alienating voters, all without abandoning inequitable and unpopular positions.

What should be done?

Especially since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many parents have felt a loss of agency when it comes to their children’s education, so it’s understandable that even some at the center of American politics find themselves attracted to the GOP’s claims that parents matter.

An important first step for reaching some of those attracted to parents’ rights arguments is, ironically, education: a better knowledge of history shows that some of today’s professed concern for parental rights reflects a much broader, and often darker, agenda that can harm minors and the people who support them.

A second step is for political progressives and moderates to make parents’ rights arguments of their own—to remind everyone of the struggles of parents who want their children to have access to gender-affirming care or legal abortion or birth control, or who want their children to understand the culturally and racially diverse world in which they live.

The idea of parents’ rights might have come to serve as a shorthand for a particular conservative agenda, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Through public education and advocacy, we should make clear that all parents have rights, not just those on the far right.