Society / February 23, 2024

The Right-Wing Pretexts of Parents’ and Children’s Rights

Across the country, both notions are being carried to absurd extremes—at great cost to the groups they claim to represent.

Sasha Abramsky
Protestors Descend On Orange Unified School District Board Meeting Before Transgender Notification Policy Decision

After a melee broke out during public comments at an Orange Unified School District board meeting on September 7, 2023, three board members did not return to their seats.

(Leonard Ortiz / MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

In one school board after the next in Southern California’s Orange County, so-called parents’ rights advocates and the conservative board members they have elected have been waging war on what they see as “woke” education agendas. In the town of Placentia-Yorba Linda, the board voted last year to leave the California School Board Association, which its members regarded as being too liberal. The Placentia-Yorba Linda board’s departure followed their decision to ban the teaching of critical race theory in 2022.

Nearby, the Orange Unified School District, with 26,000 students spread across the cities of Orange, Villa Park, and parts of five other cities, has been embroiled in its own controversies. There, a newly empowered hard-right majority embraced a policy of outing trans students; wasted a bunch of time codifying a “parents’ bill of rights” that created good conservative political spectacle but really simply restated rights already existent in the California educational code; voted against equitable access to age-appropriate books; fired the superintendent without cause, and replaced her with a hard-right superintendent from Idaho who promptly shut down the district’s digital library in response to complaints from a parent that it had some LGBTQ-themed books in its digital archives; and declared that only US and California flags could be flown outside schools, thus shutting down any efforts to fly the Pride flag.

The board also began inviting in hard-right speakers from around the country, who riled up an already angry audience. At one point a few months back, a riot broke out and the three liberal trustees on the board had to flee for their lives. The violence, says liberal trustee Kris Erickson, an attorney who herself went to the OUSD schools as a child, “is kind of a carryover from Covid. That’s where it began, and it’s kind of just snowballed. What’s happening now is not normal, it’s not civil discourse.” Erickson and others have been subjected to death threats and other forms of trolling; teachers in the district have been publicly named as being “groomers, predators, and pedophiles.” A quarter of the district’s administrators have quit, viewing the political climate as too dangerous to continue working in. It is, Erickson says, “aggressive, it’s toxic, it’s ugly.”

On March 5, two of the conservative trustees, Rick Ladesma and Madison Miner, will face a recall election, after their opponents gathered more than 20,000 signatures to put the recall to voters. If they are indeed sent packing, Orange will once again have a moderate board; if they aren’t, the right-wing lurch will continue apace, with a disastrous impact on local schools and the students being educated in their classrooms.

In Tustin Unified, board member Allyson Muñiz Damikolas—who is currently running as a Democrat for the US House of Representatives in California’s GOP-held 40th Congressional District—faced a recall election in 2022. Conservative parents, many of whom had organized against Covid-era public health restrictions back in 2020 and 2021, accused her of being in bed with the teachers’ union, of supporting the teaching of critical race theory, and of personally promoting kids’ conversion to a transgender identity. The recall didn’t gain enough signatures to make it to the ballot, but Damikolas argues that the corrosive impact of these campaigns is far-reaching. “The attack on public education is a bigger thing than what we see at the school board,” she says. “It’s about sowing distrust in public education and the institution itself. Public schools are the foundation of democracy; it’s a place we all get together. When you have strong public schools, you build strong community.”

Speaking of children, let’s shift the focus from the nebulous and often violent “parents’ rights” movement to an even crazier vision of “children’s rights.” To wit, the Alabama Supreme Court ruling this week that frozen embryos are children. This is surely the reductio ad absurdum of the pro-life movement: Tiny balls of cells that would never have been created in the first place, had it not been for scientists trying to give the gift of life to infertile parents, are now accorded a legal status that means they can’t be destroyed—which actually condemns them to perpetual frozen-hood, since IVF medics will now be terrified to do their jobs. If, say, prior to the ruling one in 10 or one in 20 of the frozen embryos would have been chosen for implantation into a mother’s womb, as seems to be commonplace according to the testimonies of women who have gone through the process, now none in those 10 or 20 will be given a shot at real life.

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Think that’s far-fetched? See how quickly the University of Alabama cut off IVF services to patients in the wake of the ruling, fearful that its staff could be exposed to criminal prosecution, accused of being foul, embryo-slaughtering murderers.

In the South, abortion is now out of reach. And after this monstrously stupid ruling, IVF is rapidly circling down the drain. Given the irrationalism of this moment, we’re really only one Southern legal two-step away now from prosecuting men for wastefully ejaculating their red-blooded American sperm into a condom, or hauling a woman before the courts for interrupting her natural menstrual cycle by taking birth control pills.

Meanwhile, following this troglodyte court pronouncement, Alabama’s frozen embryos have acquired quite extraordinary powers. If their would-be parents go into one of Alabama’s almost totally unregulated gun stores, buy high-powered weapons, and kill themselves, their frozen embryos, having full personhood rights, now presumably stand to inherit their estates. It’s not inconceivable, if this ruling is taken to its logical extension, that the courts would have to appoint a guardian to look after the newly orphaned cellular blob and its financial assets. If the parents instead shoot up the Supreme Court and are sentenced to death by one of the right-to-life state’s barbaric methods of execution, those poor little frozen cells would have to be placed in the foster care system—or sent off to a state-run orphanage, where, I fear, the specialized services needed to give a smudge of cellular tissue a decent quality of life might be sorely lacking.

And what would happen if an electrician accidentally turns off the electricity supply to a lab, unfreezes the newly wealthy young embryos and thus ends their already minimal prospects of progressing from microscopic ball of cells to thinking human? Should that negligent electrician now be charged with manslaughter—or, if the unplugging were deemed deliberate, even premeditated murder?

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In cases where embryos were not defrosted but instead, lacking a womb to be implanted into, remained in a state of permanent chill, would they be allowed to start school once they reached the age of 5? And, under the ADA, what sorts of educational accommodations ought to be made to account for the fact that, well, they are only about a dozen cells high and have no brains?

It turns out that the Dobbs decision is the gift that keeps on giving. First, it led to abortion bans that have energized progressive voters in one election after the next for the past 18 months; now, it’s led to a decision so spectacularly malign and so breathtakingly cavalier in its disregard for basic science and common sense that it might render illegal the fertility treatments that millions of Americans desperate to start families rely on. The odds are pretty good that many of those men and women who might be otherwise tempted to vote Republican, who might even support conservative school boards in places like Orange County, will now realize that absent the election of legislators willing to codify their sexual and health rights, their chances of having children and starting a family have just been dramatically reduced. If soccer moms were the constituency of the moment in past election cycles, this time around, IVF moms just might be a crucial voting bloc.

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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