Guardians of the unborn and the nanny state

By Khaled Diab

The Dutch parliament is considering whether protecting unborn children should supersede the rights of parents to procreate.

November 2008

Women in the who are deemed by the state to be unfit mothers could soon be sentenced to take contraception for a prescribed period of two years, according to a draft bill before the Dutch parliament.

The proposed would further punish parents who defied it by taking away their newborn infant. “It targets people who have been the subject of judicial intervention because of their bad parenting,” explained the author of the bill Marjo Van Dijken of the socialist PvDA. “If someone refuses the contraception and becomes pregnant, the child must be taken away directly after birth.”

When I see how some parents treat their children and come across adults who wish they'd never been born because of the abuse they endured as kids, I get some idea of where Van Dijken is coming from, but her proposed solution strikes me as far too draconian.

In fact, I have serious misgivings about the implications of this proposed law, and it raises a torrent of questions in my mind. Is it really the state's role to protect the unborn and does it have the right to control people's bodies in such a way and to deprive them of the basic right to procreate? Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Just because a parent was bad with one child, does it mean (s)he will repeat the offence?

Have we got the right to exercise pre-emptive “justice” – and could this be the first step towards a “minority report” approach to parental “precrime”? And, perhaps, given the Dutch penchant for social engineering, this could prove to be the prelude for the professionalisation of parenting, where in the distant future only certified and trained “fathers” and “mothers” would be allowed to raise children in special facilities.

Less fantastically, could this not be the first step down a slippery slope? This government may have all the best intentions, but what's to guarantee that a future government won't use the law, or an amendment of it, to target undesirable groups, such as Roma, gays, religious minorities and immigrants.

More immediately, there's the question of how we would define the “unfit parents” who should be deprived of the right to bear children. Should the law apply only to parents who pose a clear and present danger to potential offspring or could it be more loosely interpreted to apply to those of whose parenting style the state disapproves?

Even if the law does save legions of notional children the trauma of neglectful parenting and abuse, how about all those parents it unfairly condemns? Surely, not all people who have ill-treated their children will raise their future offspring badly. Some will learn from their mistakes or be prompted by remorse to do better. Others will have mistreated their children because of temporary factors, such as depression or a nervous breakdown, the break-up of a relationship, or the loss of a job and other social deprivations.

“I find this is going way too far,” exclaimed one Dutch blogger. “That's may be because I experienced how my own sister could not take care of her son as a consequence of postnatal depression… Was she such a bad mother that, in the future, she can't determine for herself whether or not to have another child?”

I must admit that it shocked me that this law was the brainchild of a socialist. As a confounded psychiatrist friend who deals with troubled children put it, this bill is vaguely reminiscent of the eugenics and sterilisation programmes of the fascist era.

Rather than the altruistic goal of protecting children, one friend thinks that this legislative proposal, which is likely to be defeated, is an attempt to steal the populist thunder of the far right in a society that has veered significantly rightwards in recent years. Another hidden objective could be to reduce the cost to the state of caring for abused children.

Luckily, this ill-conceived law, according to legal experts, contravenes the Dutch constitution and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and will hopefully be defeated on the floor of the parliament.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 4 November 2008. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and . He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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