Many professions require state or federal licensure, including hairdressers, teachers, accountants, and physicians. The main reason we have professional licensure is to protect the clients who seek out the services of these professionals. Licenses require that professionals meet a minimum standard of knowledge and skills to certify competence in their field. Even some leisure activities require licensure, especially those that are considered potentially dangerous, such as scuba diving and hunting.
Some have suggested that parents should also be licensed as a way of protecting their children by ensuring that have a base minimum skill set and knowledge about good parenting. The typical response to this suggestion is an emphatic no. Why is our knee jerk reaction to the idea of licensing parents to be horrified when we aren’t bothered by licenses for professional and leisure activities, some of which also involve placing the lives of others in their hands (e.g. a physician) or require developing a deeper connection between people (e.g. a teacher)? How and why is parenthood different from these other activities?
Some argue that parenthood is different from professional and leisure activities because it is a natural and noncommercial activity that exists outside of the spheres of government and finance. Parenthood is a more basic and biological activity, one that can be found in the natural world (i.e. animals engage in parenting activity, but not the social and political activity regulated by government).
The argument that parenthood is natural, instinctual, and predates civilized society (and can continue to exist outside of civilized society) seems odd in light of the plethora of books, websites, groups, and so on devoted to helping parents learn to be good parents. All our self-help materials dedicated to this topic seem to suggest that parenting is not purely instinctual, but that education is also required. Being a good hairdresser, physician, or other professional may also be partially instinctual – perhaps certain people have innate or socialized characteristics that lend themselves to greatness in this profession – but we as a society also believe that education is required to develop these skills.
We may agree that education is also required to develop good parenting skills, but be reluctant to translate this into a formalized process like licensure. One concern with parental licenses is that they would probably be based on the values of the dominant or powerful group. Such licenses could make it difficult or even impossible for less advantaged groups (e.g. people with lower socioeconomic status, people from minority cultures and religions, etc.) to become parents solely because of their group membership.
Another concern with parental license is the sheer logistics of enacting and enforcing them. Would people have to obtain a license before they reproduce and, if so, how would this work for people to reproducing via heterosexual intercourse? Depending upon the clinic, there is some screening for individuals reproducing via assisted reproductive technologies, but this varies dramatically. For people parenting via adoption, there are already often very strict screening protocols in place that function similar to a license.
Assuming we could come up with a logistically feasible and fair method for licensing the parents, is this something we should attempt to do?
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.