September 16, 2021

Of all the fights I imagined having with my teenage sons, contesting their right to undergo a mildly painful medical procedure of little immediate benefit to them has never been one of them. All this time I’ve been fretting over hardcore pornography and illegal drugs, and it’s “doing Pfizer” that could be the problem.

Judging by the stream of recent headlines, petitions and open letters, parents of 12 to 15-year-olds could soon be heading for a showdown over the “right to be vaccinated against Covid”. The UK’s Chief Medical Officers this week announced a plan to offer them jabs — despite the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s advice that the direct benefits for healthy children were too marginal.

And while parents will be required to give their consent for their child to be vaccinated, a child will be able to override their parents’ refusal providing he or she is deemed to have “enough intelligence, competence and understanding to fully appreciate what’s involved in their treatment” (otherwise known as being Gillick competent).

Covid-19 has always been a crisis in search of a culture war, and the response to this announcement has been no exception. When such luminaries as Gillian McKeith and Laurence Fox, and groups with titles such as Family Defence League and Lawyers for Liberty, start advising parental resistance, you know it’s about more than the scientific specifics of just one jab. Suddenly it is about personal freedom, the rejection of state interference in family life and the principle that a parent should decide what is right for their child. It is about where you stand politically and how you want to be perceived.

I’ll be honest: I do not want to be standing alongside Laurence Fox. I know which “side” of this debate I am meant to be on — which one suits both my political persuasions and my parenting style. And it is that, more than any in-depth medical knowledge, which tempts me to declare myself fine with my own children overriding my consent (were it not for the fact that this in itself constitutes a form of giving consent — the eternal paradox of liberal parenting).

I find the idea of a child ending up in mediation with their own parents over the right to be vaccinated not just unlikely, but bizarre (the idea of slammed doors, mealtime sulks, plaintive cries of “but EVERYONE else has had one!”). Yet for others, the anxiety is real, with schools being inundated with letters from parents fearful that vaccinations will take place behind their backs.

Perhaps I’m unusual, but ever since I was allowed — just allowed! — to take my firstborn home from the hospital, I’ve been sceptical about the idea that parents know best.

Parental decisions are informed not just by love, but politics. We know this, though we tend to tell ourselves it is those other parents — those of the opposing political tribe — who are getting it wrong. This inconsistency is particularly glaring in current debates on the treatment of young people with gender dysphoria. There are parents who support social transition, the prescription of puberty blockers and/or the use of binders, and parents who don’t — with both sides insisting they are motivated by an understanding of their child inaccessible to anyone else. In accounts of raising trans children, or opposing a child’s desire to transition, “I know what’s best for my child” merges with “any loving parent in my position would make the same choice” (or, at the sharp end, “any parent who would not make the same choice obviously wants their child dead”).

It is uncomfortable to admit that your love, and what is in the “best interests of the child”, is tainted by your own background, self-image, friendship groups and even personal traumas. Yet I know mine is, even when I think I’m right. Indeed, it is by watching the Covid vaccination debate play out that I’ve felt, more than ever, how much more attractive it is to cling to our slogans rather than admit how little we know.

I have my own self-defeating list of things that I, as a parent, should and should not be allowed to do. Not allowed: smacking children; restricting access to contraception and abortion (providing safeguarding checks are made); vetoing access to good sex education (I decide what “good” is). Allowed: vetoing access to dodgy sex education (I decide what “dodgy” is); intervening where a treatment constitutes self-harm (I decide what “self-harm” is).

I know this is provisional and shaky, riven with qualifications, making the bodies of my children (and yours) a testing ground for my politics. I do think there are areas — such as the administration of physical punishment, or the use of breast binders — where it is possible to make a more objective case for harm being done, but the template of “parents’ rights” is unhelpful. With the proposed Covid vaccinations, the situation is different still; the play-off is not between potential losses and gains for one’s own child, but potential gains for other people, perhaps even yourself.

Here we have an example where the primary beneficiaries of a treatment may not be — indeed, most probably are not — those receiving it. As a result, the simplistic concept of individuals, or their parents, knowing what’s best for them falls apart. Writing in The Independent, Victoria Richards argues in favour of “competent” children making the final decision on vaccination using the principle of “knowing best”:

“Some children under the age of 15 will be deemed “Gilick competent”, some won’t… Parents or carers know their children best — so chances are, you know which camp your child would likely fall into. If you’re a parent who’s vaccine-hesitant, I can understand why you might feel upset – even angry — about such a scenario. But what I really feel is that we should trust our kids; many of whom are mature, intelligent and information-savvy well before the age of 12.”

I think my children are mature, intelligent and information-savvy; the trouble is, I don’t think the debate over having a Covid jab is a test of these qualities. This is a complex situation, hijacked by narratives about state control, science and freedom. It is also one in which moral pressure is being exerted on children, one that might come from schools, but which could also come from parents who want their children to be vaccinated. Coercing children — however subtly — to do something with their bodies which isn’t primarily for their benefit is questionable. But so, too, is making that body the site for spurious, abstract arguments about liberty and parental infallibility. Neither side is coming off well.

Richards goes on to invoke the principle of “my body, my choice”: “We can’t very well teach our children that they have the right to say “no” to unwanted physical contact one minute, and then demand they kiss an aged aunt the next… And if we are teaching our kids that their bodies (rightly) belong to them, then that should go for whatever it is they decide about the vaccine, too.”

But this is a reversal of our usual message regarding consent, because the focus is on the right to say “yes”, not “no”. There’s something telling in the way that liberal leanings push us towards making the dominant message “you have the right to override your parents if they say no”, rather than “you have the right to override them if they say yes”. It smacks — just a little — of an uncomfortable political division on consent, whereby some of us only want to focus on the giving rather than the withholding. For all the accusations of illiberal moral panic one might throw at those raising alarm about the vaccine, “my body, my choice” is a slogan that would seem to me to apply better to the children saying no for themselves. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I find myself veering, ever so slightly, Laurence Fox-wards.

I am not going to fight with my children over the vaccine; they want to have one and I will not stop them. But there are bigger questions to ask, not just about what influence parents should have, but what we are using our children for. Children have been asked to make significant, necessary sacrifices for adults; it is not necessary to use them to fight our own culture wars.