Think of some human rights. Some of them involve freedom from certain things, like discrimination based on sex or religion. These are often referred to as negative rights because they involve inaction to be fulfilled. In contrast, positive rights are things like the right to a fair trial -- an action has to be performed by others for this right to be fulfilled. A provincial government bill enacted this week is introducing a new right. Bill 44 gives parents the right to remove their children from classes deemed contrary to the parents' religious and sexual beliefs.
Rights are tricky things. One can claim a right to just about anything, and political capital is easily gained by introducing a new right. For instance, Finland recently claimed that its citizens have a legal right to broadband internet access. Once enshrined, it's difficult to remove a right because of the leverage the word provides ("but I have a right to fast internet"). Ethically the point of a right is to protect individuals from being harmed for the greater good. I have a right to autonomy, for example. While society might benefit more from me being forced to work for free, I am protected from that trade off occurring.
Bill 44 confers a specific right to parents by allowing them to remove their children from certain types of classes. If I, as a parent, deny the evidence of evolution, then I can deny it on behalf of my child as well, according to the bill. Similarly, if I don't want my 16-year-old to learn about sex, then I now have the right to prevent her from discovering such information in class. My reasons are inconsequential. All that is required of me is to inform the school of my opinion and lo, the right must be obeyed.
The main concern regards the extent that parents should be allowed to control the upbringing of their children. A knowledge of science is necessary to be a productive member of society. Science class teaches what the evidence suggests, not what people believe about the evidence. Indeed, science doesn't care what one's beliefs about the matter are -- the Earth still revolves around the sun and evolution by natural selection occurs whether we believe it does or not. The autonomy rights of a child to, say, go into science are thus infringed because of forced ignorance.
The problems with Bill 44 may be more pronounced when considering sex education. Sexually transmitted infections aren't taught in school because society believes them to be a good idea. No, they're taught so that teenagers are educated to prevent them. Teaching teenagers about birth control similarly recognizes that many of them are going to have sex before they finish high school, and if they wish to avoid an unwanted pregnancy they should know how to prevent one. Part of the motivation for the bill was that parents were upset their children were learning about homosexuality. Learning about homosexuality, however, will not increase the risk of the child becoming homosexual, which is the real worry such parents hold.
In spite of Bill 44, there are good reasons to prevent parents from being the sole source of information that children have. This is partly for pragmatic reasons -- even well-educated parents are unlikely to have more diversity of knowledge than all the teachers a student will encounter. But the stronger reason is that parents shouldn't be allowed to teach their children whatever they want. Evolution is not a matter of opinion and students ought to come in contact with these ideas. (After all, teaching evolution in schools hasn't lowered the risk of children falling prey to parental ignorance.)
As it turns out, children have rights as well. In Nicholas Humphrey's memorable phrase, they have the right "not to have their minds addled by nonsense." True, children don't possess all the rights adults do. It isn't out of bigotry that we prevent ten-year-olds from driving or voting. There are some things, however, that they do have the right to. They have the right to have different religious and political and sexual preferences from their parents, for instance. Teenagers also have the right to consensual sex with a person of either gender, free from the ignorance of how to put on a condom. When the right of an adult to parent conflicts with the best interests of the child, surely the child's rights take precedence. Other rights, such as healthcare, cannot be overridden by the choice of a parent.
The second problem of Bill 44 is the implication that teachers can be called before the Alberta Human Rights Commission should they have the audacity to teach students things that contradict their parents' beliefs. It's unfortunate that such parents are already intellectually stunted. It would be a double shame if the next generation ends up the same way.