Licensing parents

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Licensing parenting — requiring a license to reproduce — is an idea that is entering academia, especially in the areas of child psychology, ethics and environmental sciences. There are several broad categories why this may be done:

  1. Population control: a government wants to limit or increase the size of its population. It may not be especially concerned which parents reproduce, but, especially when reduction is the goal, licensing allows them to control supply.
  2. Ensuring adequate parental resources: in a primitive society, this might be as straightforward as a taboo on parents, who have not yet been initiated as adults, reproducing. In more modern society, it could include education (especially in parenting skills), financial resources to provide etc. Here, the licensing is specific, not quota-based, but it is theoretically possible to change one's status and reapply.
  3. Encouraging or discouraging traits in a population. In these cases, the prospective parents would need to be examined, their genotypes evaluated, and then licensed or not license with no probable hope of change. Change might be possible if one moves in or out of a toxic environment.

Obviously, the idea is extremely controversial, as it runs against long traditions of parental rights in liberal societies.

Population control

The burgeoning population, with its attendant problems of ecological scarcities and excesses, such as famines and global warming, gives pause to many. The movement of large numbers of people to cities might be a factor in the rise of urban crime. Parental indifference to education, and the lack of sufficient educational opportunities, might be negative factors for many children and for their societies. While some countries, like Norway, Russia and Canada, see children as an economic asset, others like India and China, have population reduction policies. In the latter, parents may indeed receive licenses to have additional children, with sanctions if they exceed it.

The Soviets, after losing several million men in the two world wars and the revolution and civil war, wanted as many babies as possible. Their ‘hero mothers’, who had given birth to at least ten children, were acclaimed as ideals for the society. So the Soviets put their emphasis on quantity, not necessarily on quality. Even today (2008), Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is suggesting doubling the monthly financial stipend for those who have more children.

Ensuring adequate parental resources

Other countries, such as the United States and South Africa, have very high crime rates. Should parents in such countries be required to undergo parental education or guarantee that they can provide, at least minimally, for the physical needs of their children? If some sort of parent permission or parent license is to be considered, what options might be contemplated?

Encouraging or discouraging genetic aspects

The questions for consideration would probably include both hereditary and environmental factors, either singly or in combination. There have, in the past, been eugenics movements based on assumptions about heredity, which frequently proved genetically wrong. With the advent of new precision in genetics, the ethics of restraint become more complex.

Equally, environmental factors, both on a large and on an individual level, apply. Potential parents, male or female, with a history of exposure to ionizing radiation might be checked before being authorized. There are examples of people going into such situations first "banking" normal ova or spermatozoa.

Would there be license revocations? What if a pregnant woman ingests substances known, or known to have a high probability, of inducing fetal malformation?


The ideas for controlling the quality or quantity of a population are not new. They have been found in both primitive and advanced societies. The practice of controlling births or the type of children being allowed into the society undoubtedly precedes the Spartan practice in ancient Greece, where newborns were inspected by soldiers to determine whether they looked sound and strong, if not they were placed on a hill and exposed to the elements to die. Those who were deemed worthy were trained and became the bravest warriors of the time. This is an example of a eugenic[1] technique after the birth—a eugenically based infanticide.

Today, in the developed countries, parents can opt for genetic counseling, amniocentesis, and abortion. Their concerns may be for sex selection, as in Pakistan, India and China, or to minimize the chance of genetic related diseases such as: Down syndrome, sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, or Tay-Sachs.

Genetic counseling is an example of eugenics applied before conception. Amniocentesis and abortion are examples of post-conception eugenics. Viewed another way it can be seen as a way of preventing the birth of a less than healthy child. This is often called dysgenics.

A voluntary Nazi program to aid in making it easier for Germans, particularly S.S. officers, to contribute to an ethnically pure German race and to help to bolster the lagging birthrates was the Lebensborn Association. This had voluntary eugenic goals.

The term ‘dysgenics’ was first used by David Starr Jordan in 1915 when he postulated that wars killed off the fitter men while the less fit were left at home. [2] The advances of modern medicine and social welfare systems might also be postulated as dysgenic because they may keep people alive who in earlier days might not have survived to reproduce. Nazi Germany used a dysgenic approach when it proposed and carried out ambitious programs for preventing those it considered to be poor hereditary risks to reproduce or even to live — including: Jews and gypsies, criminals, degenerates, dissidents, the feeble-minded, homosexuals, the insane, and others considered mentally or physically weak.

Along with encouraging sound genetic compositions, or reducing the less than sound genetic potentials, a third consideration for increasing the health and well-being of the child entered the lexicon about a hundred years ago. ‘Euthenics’[3] is the concern for a more effective environment. This might include more effective educational opportunities, the protection from diseases, such as through vaccinations and water and sewage treatment, and better housing and nutrition. The term is derived from the Greek verb ‘euthenein’ meaning ‘to thrive’.

Licensing parents

The idea of licensing parents, or licensing parenting, is quite new, but the concept of promoting eugenics or discouraging dysgenics have historical roots, as does the idea of producing many children for the good of society—without regard to their genetic quality.

At the Second International Eugenics Conference in 1921, Eugenics was defined as "the self-direction of human evolution". If we accept this definition, eugenics can refer to nature or nurture. Previous attempts at eugenics have emphasized ‘nature’—the hereditary aspects of controlling human evolution. Recent ideas are emphasizing the ‘nurture’ aspects, the environmental influences on the child.

The modern debate

The recent debate deals with the environmental factors, euthenics. Dr. Hugh LaFollette, a philosophy professor at the University of Southern Florida, started this newer aspect of the debate. Dr. LaFollette, whose specialty is ethics, wrote an article titled “Licensing Parents” for the academic journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1980. [4] Dr. LaFollette lists a number of factors to be considered in attempting to reduce the hundreds of thousands of children who are annually subjected to physical and mental abuse. He discusses how the state has the power to license a number of activities and to make many other activities illegal. He completes the article answering the proposed objections to the idea. His plea is for minimal, not ideal, parenting competencies.

In 1994 a psychiatrist, Dr. Jack Westman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has written a number of books on parenting and children, published Licensing Parents: Can We Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect.[5] Like LaFollette his concern is for the children, so parents were free to parent as long as they were not likely to hurt their children and prevent them from becoming contributing members to society. He also deals with the civil rights of children to have adequate parenting. He estimates that every competently parented child is worth one million dollars to the economy through production and taxes, his estimate for incompetently parented children is a cost of two million dollars to the society. His requirements for a license would be that the person be an adult and promise not to hurt the child. He expresses a concern about teenage parents. [6]

The most recent addition to the debate includes many of the ideas of LaFollette and Westman but ties them in with other world problems, particularly overpopulation. In a series of free e-books titled “. . .And Gulliver Returns” --In Search of Utopia [7] the authors follow a modern Gulliver through several mythical countries, evaluating the effects on those countries that have licensed parents and those that have not. The odd numbered books are fictional accounts of the visits and the even numbered books take a non-fictional approach that analyzes various issues, both pro and con. The three works cited while favoring some kind of licensing, also look at the negatives to the potential practice. Violations of personal freedom, of civil or human rights, and of the potential misuse of governments being involved in the process are discussed.

Other options for increasing the chance that children will be honestly wanted

Rather than requiring licenses, financial incentives or disincentives could be used. Reduced deductions on income taxes for parents of children who are not successful in school or who are in trouble with the law. Perhaps this is more likely to hurt the child. Increased tax deductions or tax credits for successful children is a more positive possibility. Tax credits could be given for successfully completing courses that would likely increase one’s parenting skills, such as in: nutrition, child psychology or health education.

Certainly nurture is important in the development of the child. Whether it is more or less important than nature is just not known yet.


  1. Eugenics. Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-2007.
  2. Jordan, David Starr. (1915) War and the Breed: The Relation of War to the Downfall of Nations. (2003 Reprint) Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific. ISBN 1-4102-0900-8
  3. Richards, Ellen Swallow. (1905) The Cost of Shelter
  4. LaFollette, H. Licensing Parents. ‘’Philosophy and Public Affairs’’ pp. 182-97.
  5. Westman, Jack. (2001) Licensing Parents: Can We Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect. Perseus Books. ISBN 0738206210.
  6. Westman, Jack. The Rationale for Licensing Parents.
  7. And Gulliver Returns. See ". . . AND GULLIVER RETURNS" --In Search of Utopia -- by Lemuel Gulliver XVI as told to Jacqueline Slow.