Protecting the children

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The urge to protect children is almost universal in human beings. Part of that is sure to be instinctual, a hereditary urge to ensure the continuation of our species. But in the modern era, much of that is due to the value we place in children themselves as individuals, and an acknowledgment of what we have learned about their vulnerability as they grow in mind and body. Children deserve nurturing and protection, and they need nurturing and protection. For those of us that are parents, we have the natural and primary obligation to see to these things. It is both our duty and our joy to raise our children and to do what is best for them.

But it goes without saying that to give what is best for our children, parents must very often look beyond their own selves. We need the help of others such as doctors and nurses to ensure their safe delivery and overall health, we need teachers to give them specialized education… and this does not even go into all the other essential everyday services that others provide in our mutually dependent society.

To say that parents have legal authority over their children and a natural right to the same and to their care is not the same as saying that all the child needs must come from their parents. This is an acknowledgment of both the limitations and humanity of the parents, as well as the fact that what a parent wants may clash with what a child needs. This is why our nation has repeatedly passed laws that put at the forefront the primacy of the best interests of the child.

The well-being of children and the proper party to determine the same has come to the fore now that pediatric vaccination against COVID-19 for children ages five to 11 are now available here in the Philippines. A case was recently filed with a Quezon City trial court asking the court to order a stop to the pediatric vaccination rollout: “Considering the possible deprivation of parents’/guardians’ legal authority over their children, without the authority of law or court intervention.” While the petitioners do mention that pediatric vaccination is not mandatory, they took issue with a provision in the DOH memorandum setting the guidelines for the vaccination rollout which allowed the State to give the consent required, as parens patriae, if the child wished to be vaccinated but the parents did not. Resolution of that case has now become moot, however, given that the DOH has now rescinded the paragraph concerned.

While it is unlikely that the Court will rule on that case, I think that it is important to stress that – especially in the current environment where the world is still (in spite of hopes and illusions to the contrary) wrestling with an ongoing pandemic – care must be taken when we draw the line between individual authorities and communal responsibilities. I’ve written before that a public health emergency such as the current pandemic can only be addressed by a solution that involves a concerted public response, and by necessity that involves being able to look beyond our own selves, and it may involve taking direction from those with more knowledge about specialized subjects.

A parent cannot be faulted for their belief that no one knows their children better than they do, and that no one wants what is best for their children more than they do. But it should be obvious that these beliefs and these emotions do not automatically translate themselves into knowledge or expertise. Someone who was raised through corporeal punishment may believe that hitting a child repeatedly with a stick is what is best for that child because that’s all that parent knows – but this does not make it true, nor a mere matter of individual freedom, not when studies have repeatedly and publicly shown that such punishment harms the child’s development and is against the rights of the child.

In matters such as those of faith or ethics, parental prerogatives have primacy and are almost absolute. But that does not and cannot be unassailable when it comes to more objective areas that can be subject of rigorous and replicable study, testing and reporting. The areas of science, of medicine and vaccines do come under that umbrella – even with the understanding that science is a dynamic and evolving field. While we cannot have perfect and final answers, we can turn to experts and trusted authorities to give us an idea about what the scientific consensus is now: and when it comes to vaccines against COVID-19, the consensus is simply that vaccines work.

Vaccination, whether for the young or old, is one of our best defenses against COVID-19 and its most severe effects. This is true to varying degrees no matter the age of the person, no matter the WHO approved brand of the vaccine, and no matter the variant. As with most medical substances, there are possibilities for side effects but as a whole it is clear that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages: in the Western Visayas alone, more than 20,000 children have been infected with COVID-19. While many of these children were asymptomatic, others were not, and there have been tragic deaths. Considering that even asymptomatic individuals can spread the virus to their more vulnerable peers, anything that can dampen that spread is of the utmost importance. Foremost amongst these is vaccination.

It is uncontested that parents have rights and responsibilities towards their children – but children too, have rights, rights recognized locally and internationally, rights which produce obligations on the part of the State. These include the right to life, the right to health and the obligation of the State to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, the survival and development of the child.

Vaccination is not at present mandated by our law, not even the vaccination of children. But I urge every parent to turn, as they so often have before, to the words of specialists and experts; to focus not just on what they are entitled to do as parents, but more importantly what would be best – objectively, scientifically – for their children.

Vaccination is protection. And it is protection our children desperately need.


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