Sunday, July 17, 2011

Obesity Isn't Abuse

The media has been aflame with a recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that advocates removing severely obese children from their parents.  People are right to be concerned about unjustified state intervention within the family.  Children should not be removed from the home except under the most excepting situations.

However, when one pushes aside the media firestorm and actually reads the original JAMA commentary, the author's claims are less "nanny state" than some pundits choose to portray.  The authors state:
...[P]oor parenting is analogous to secondhand smoke in the home—a condition associated with adverse health consequences for the child, but not warranting legal intervention.   
...State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors. Child protective services typically provide intermediate options such as in-home social supports, parenting training, counseling, and financial assistance, that may address underlying problems without resorting to removal. These less burdensome forms of legal intervention may be sufficient and therefore preferable in many cases. 
...In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents' chronic failure to address medical problems. 
...Nevertheless, state intervention would clearly not be desirable or practical, and probably not be legally justifiable, for most of the approximately 2 million children in the United States with a BMI at or beyond the 99th percentile.
The authors clearly address that such instances of overt state intervention should be severely limited.  They are also correct in stating that "[d]espite a well-established constitutional right of parents to raise their children as they choose, the state may intervene to protect the child's interests."  One of the primary roles of the state is to protect individuals from abuse or injury caused by others.  This constitutional protection has to be extended to children as well - few would dispute such an argument.

Nevertheless, while the author's argument is much more narrow than the media has thus far portrayed, it does venture a bit outside of what is acceptable.  Obesity isn't abuse.  At most, obesity may be an indicator of potential abuse.  There are numerous causes of obesity in children.  Accordingly, in cases of morbid obesity it may be appropriate to investigate a home situation to determine if abuse - whether neglect or emotional or physical abuse - is occurring.  However, obesity alone should never be justification for the removal of a child from his or her parents.  This, as many have pointed out, gives the state far too much power to determine what is and what is not right for an individual. 

Jonah Goldberg stated the problem aptly.  "Once you establish the idea that the state can take away kids from loving parents because the state thinks they're not good parents, you really are off to the races."

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