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FIRST-PERSON: When children are sacrificed

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–When scholars write the history of the late 20th century western world, the major story may well be our systematic and unjust sacrificing of the needs, interests and rights of children on the altar of the needs, interests and (supposedly more important) rights of adults.

Although recent headlines about child pornography make certain aspects of this argument obvious, the general claim may strike some readers as implausible. After all, our society still cares quite a bit about children. We offer numerous programs for children. We remain sentimental about children. But my claim is that, when push comes to shove — when the interests and demands of adults clash with those of children — with alarming frequency we choose the interests of adults.

Abortion on demand, as established by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and similar cases throughout the western world, established the priority of adult interests over a child’s very survival in a most obvious and horrifying manner.

When read closely, Roe v. Wade actually attempts to place a calculated value on a developing unborn child both in its rhetoric and through its “trimester” scheme. But even the trimester concession doesn’t protect unborn children. The broadly defined “emotional health” of a mother can legally override the interests of a “fetus,” leading to the horror of late-term and “live-birth” abortions.

In this fashion, our society communicates in the most fundamental way imaginable that the interests of children must always give way to the interests of adults, even to the point of death. Is it implausible, then, to conclude that our general behavior toward children may be less idealistic than what we tend to believe, and that it may even add to the phenomenon of violent and sexual assaults on children?

The quest for adult romantic happiness is another altar upon which today’s children are sacrificed. The mass practice of divorce, out-of-wedlock birth and cohabitation have all shattered our understood ways of best caring for and raising children. Adults pursuing their own romantic and sexual needs often selfishly subordinate the interests of the various children they produce along the way. Perhaps most insidiously, many tell themselves the socially promoted lie that their children’s happiness can best be guaranteed through the pursuit of their own adult happiness.

Childhood, in most western nations, is an increasingly bizarre experience of multiple and often overlapping families and households. A current student of mine has experienced six families in his 18 pre-college years: three on his mother’s side and three on his father’s side. I fear this is no longer an atypical childhood.

In such families, at any given moment, some strange adult, perhaps toting some set of strange children from a previous relationship, is moving into an impressionable child’s life while another adult, perhaps a loving parent, is moving out. Life within these emotionally chaotic households clearly lacks the security and stability for which children have a proven need.

Then we have the “boyfriend problem,” in which divorced adults introduce unrelated men and women into their own homes as cohabitating lovers. Living in proximity with children they do not love but sometimes come to desire sexually, these live-in strangers (primarily but not exclusively men) are responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of child physical and sexual abuse.

Much may be said about beauty pageants for toddlers, especially those that emphasize the sexuality of preadolescent children. Do they establish a life of healthy competition leading to rewards for well-balanced young women, or are they a subtle form of “acting-out” for underachieving parents, perhaps even a form of sexual abuse? Who is there to protect a 2- or 3-year-old girl who couldn’t possibly know the difference?

The Bible demands that the powerful stand up for the powerless, that those who have a voice speak up for those who do not. Children have less power than women, less than men, less than anyone. Adults used to sacrifice for children. Now, often, children are sacrificed for adults. Considered in its many forms, not all listed here, this child sacrifice is the gravest moral outrage of our time.
Gushee is the Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and senior fellow with the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.

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  • David P. Gushee