Americans who hoped that the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child would be stuffed in a drawer with its predecessor, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, got a jolt in February when Mrs. Clinton announced (at the funeral of UNICEF director James Grant) that the Convention would be signed and forwarded to the Senate for ratification. If step one came easily (Madeleine Albright signed the document on February 16), step two faces greater odds: a Foreign Relations Committee headed by Jesse Helms.

Many defenders of the family are more worried about world government than the terrific power their own local child savers wield, which is surprising. After all, the agents of such programs as Parents as Teachers (PAT) in Missouri or the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) in Illinois do not have to wait, unlike UNICEF, for the power to snatch children: they already have it. The Convention on the Rights of the Child demands scrutiny not because its decrees are about to become the law of the land, but because its aspirations are already embedded in the child protection laws of the 50 states.

Specifically, the Convention seeks to extend “the mantle of human rights protection” to “one of the most vulnerable groups in society—children.” If some people find this rhetoric appealing, it is because they have not considered at what cost it will be realized, and I do not mean the 25 percent of the U.N.’s operating budget that American taxpayers bankroll. Similar expressions are found in the U.N. Charter, which calls for “the economic and social advancement of all peoples.” Such terms are difficult to define, impossible to quantify. If one man’s “economic advancement” is another man’s bankruptcy, consensus on “social advancement” would seem even further beyond reach. People who suffer this life with an eve on their eternal reward see “advancement” as something different from those whose goal is perfecting life on earth. Changing the slogan from “social advancement” to “development,” the word currently in vogue, makes little difference. As one U.N. critic mused in Cairo last year: “Who is more ‘developed’? The adolescent African virgin who walks five miles to school? Or her peer in the neighboring village fitted with a diaphragm courtesy of the World Health Organization?”

“Human rights,” however, seem to be something everyone can agree on, as America’s own infatuation with rights will testify. “Fetal rights” activists have this in common with their “gay rights” adversaries: both look to government to enforce their claim and turn the Bill of Rights on its head. Instead of defining a sphere of human society into which the federal government may not intrude, the Bill of Rights today functions as little more than a list of individual privileges granted and enforced by government. The very rights which were to hobble the federal government in fact now empower it.

The reductio ad absurdum of this obsession with individual rights can be seen in a recent issue of the American Journal of International Law, “the right to sleep,” “the right not to be killed in a war,” “the right not to be exposed to excessively and unnecessarily heavy, degrading, dirty and boring work.” What constitutes a “right” is very simple: “a claim is an international human right if the United Nation’s General Assembly says it is.”

The modus operandi of “children’s rights” advocates is not much different. As Hillary Clinton conceded in 1979, the “difference between a legal right and other claims of right” is that the former is “enforceable under our laws,” the latter a mere “description of our needs and interests.” Not surprisingly, she therefore argued that “in the field of children’s rights,” the trick is to “transform children’s needs and interests into enforceable rights,” these needs and interests including “everything from compulsory school attendance to driving privileges to nurturing requirements.”

Whereas parents used to be expected to look after the “needs and interests” of children, government now has the power to enforce the “rights” of children even against the parents’ wishes. Each new right requires a new government arm: “The right to a worry-free retirement”—Social Security; “the right to decent housing”—Housing and Urban Development; “the right to good health”—Health and Human Services. And when it comes to enforcing the child’s right to “grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love, and understanding,” we will perhaps see Jack Westman’s scheme (borrowed from Hugh La Follette) of licensing parents.

If La Follette and Westman are careful to withhold the details on the machinery of their plan, it is not because they have failed to realize that a government with arbitrary duties is one of limitless powers. A parental licensure that permits only citizens of the age of majority to marry is hardly the same as one that restricts marriage only to citizens who will sufficiently “nurture” their children. The more vague the right, the more power the state can seize in enforcing it. Mrs. Clinton, herself, admits that the “guiding principle” of the Convention on the Rights of the Child—”the best interests of the child”—grants “extraordinary flexibility . . . to any decision-maker authorized to enforce it.”

Clues to how those in power might enforce certain rights granted by the Convention lie in its four principal—but veiled—objectives. First, limiting parental authority. The argument goes back to John Locke. Parental authority exists over children only because children’s natural state of weakness makes them dependent. As children grow stronger and more self-sufficient, their autonomy increases while parental authority decreases in proportion. Thus, according to the Convention, parents may provide “appropriate direction and guidance” to their child only insofar as such guidance is “consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.”

When a child’s capacities have evolved sufficiently, he may avail himself, for example, of the “family-planning education and services” demanded by the Convention. Here the U.N. reinforces the handiwork of Western jurisprudence. A decade ago in Great Britain, Mrs. Victoria Gillick, mother of ten, saw her effort to block England’s doctors from dispensing contraceptives to girls under l6 quashed by the House of Lords. The judges’ decision, reported The Economist, has since enabled activist lawyers in England to argue that “there is no fixed age up to which parents have complete control over their children; parental rights dwindle as the child matures. Parental powers are not a reward for parenthood, but exist to enable parents to carry out their duties to protect their offspring”—duties which apparently exclude shielding minors from state-run sex training. Little is different in the United States: in Winnebago County, Illinois, where even consensual intercourse between minors constitutes statutory rape, 12-year-old girls can receive contraceptives from the Health Department without their parents’ consent.

Ultimately, all rights granted by the Convention follow the Lockean line. A “child capable of forming his or her own views,” it reads, shall have “the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” (emphasis added). A seven-year-old weary of his multiplication tables may be too young to appeal to his “right to rest and leisure,” but what of an unruly adolescent who no longer wishes to worship with his parents? Surely his “evolving capacities” warrant his exercising his “right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” And herein lies objective number two (which is already at work in our public schools): replacing organized religion with state-run therapy.

“The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of the child’s choice.” One such frontier, funded by the state, is pantheism, that is, “respect for the natural environment.” Any deficiencies in spirituality will be made up by “social programmes [designed] to provide necessary support for the child,” to protect him from possible “exploitation.” For those children already exploited, “State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of any form of neglect, exploitation or abuse . . . in an environment that fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.”

Because exploitation and abuse are associated with organized religions, the U.N. wants nations to “take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.” Those on the fringe will be first. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists have already been prosecuted for manslaughter in Florida and Massachusetts for withholding modern medicine from their young. In Connecticut, Juliet Cheng lost her rheumatic seven-year-old daughter to the Department of Children and Youth Services for using—with some success—ancient Chinese medicine to relieve her daughter’s pain. Last March, when the knock came on the door of Emanuel Beiler’s Lancaster County farmhouse, he made a valiant dash across the field carrying his five-year-old daughter, Sylvia, in his arms. The state troopers, however, ran the Amish man down and took his little girl. His crime? Calling an end to the chemotherapy Sylvia was enduring for her leukemia. In his judgment, the treatment was making her more miserable than the disease itself.

Though the Amish may be among the few today who understand that there is more to life than being healthy, their odd beliefs, and those of other heretics and pagans, are easy targets for our own scorn. Orthodox Christians may learn to sympathize with them when the state determines that our own bizarre practices are “prejudicial to the health of children.” Forcing children to admit their faults in a small room to an intentionally celibate man in black at least endangers self-esteem, while serving alcohol to minors from one cup corrupts youth and spreads disease.

“Abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children”—tribal rites of passage requiring feats of daring? a day of hard work in the field?—will lead to the Convention’s third objective: eliminating unique cultures. The Convention warns nations always to “respect the right of the child to preserve his . . . nationality” and never to “illegally deprive” him “of some or all of the elements of his identity.” (Requiring an immigrant child to speak and write English in school?) Any child so violated must be provided “appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to speedily re-establishing [the child’s] identity.” But by requiring nations to respect—and pay for—all cultures but their own, the U.N. ensures that no one culture will outshine another. The bizarre, primitive, and foreign are now equal to the traditions and customs of families and smaller communities, setting in motion the Convention’s fourth objective: replacing the autonomous family with the omnipotent state.

The state will ensure that “every child” will enjoy “a standard of living adequate for a child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development” and will have “the right to benefit from social security, including social insurance.” In other words, the state will assume the once sacred duties of families. The poor, as always, are especially targeted: families whose “financial capacities” fall short of U.N.-determined living standards will benefit from state “assistance and support programs.” Even Mrs. Clinton acknowledges that authorities intervene “in those families that are most vulnerable to state control such as the poor or unconventional principally because of the family’s powerlessness rather than because of their needs.”

Families, never completely dispensed with, will be enlisted as functionaries of the state: “The family . . . should be afforded the necessary assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.” James Grant’s enthusiasm for “an all out assault to slow population growth” in countries such as Angola, China, Niger, Tanzania, and the Philippines, where UNICEF dollars are tied to contraception use, suggests that such responsibilities include limiting family size to reduce the strain on “social insurance programmes.” In America, of course, state assistance to families already includes providing contraception, to say nothing of abortions, to minor daughters without parental consent.

Nor need parents worry about schooling their children. The state “shall ensure to the maximum extent possible . . . the development of the child.” “Primary education” will be “compulsory and available free to all,” and the state will “take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of dropout rates.” Each graduating child will possess a “fully developed personality,” as well as “a respect for human rights. . . and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.” He will champion “understanding, peace. tolerance, equality of the sexes and friendship among all peoples.” Parents unwilling to cooperate with the new curriculum may be found guilty of creating a “family environment” in which a child for “his own best interests, cannot be allowed to remain.”

Perhaps my reading of the document represents a paranoid overreaction. But the misery that the state has recently visited upon countless parents wrongly accused of child abuse should make us all very skeptical of any children’s rights program proposed by any level of government. An international child-saver might wonder aloud: “Can no one be trusted to interpret these aspirations honestly? Has government any responsibility to see that its citizens treat their children—and indeed one another—decently?”

The answer presents a peculiar problem for citizens of the post-Christian age. Ideally, there is a legitimate role for the state—though certainly not for the international state, if such a thing can exist—to play in advancing the common good; and the restrictions which our own federal government has imposed on the states since Reconstruction in pursuit of the common good might be tolerable, save for one problem: a government that is demonstrably corrupt—one that pays to kill its own unborn, for example—is exactly the wrong instrument for dispensing charity.

Some find defense for state action in the social-justice teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. But for Pope Leo XIII, writing in Rerum Novarum, in order for a government to play a part in relieving poverty, that government must be “conformable in its institutions to right reason and natural law” as well as to specific “dictates of the Divine wisdom,” which he had set forth in an earlier encyclical. If today the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice can be seriously questioned on the grounds that he confesses belief in the natural law, it cannot be argued that our current ruling class meets Leo’s—or any Christian’s—standards. Necessary to his prescriptions, and to those of his successors, is the assumption that government will comprise statesmen whose interest is to serve the citizenry and not themselves.

Many Americans, nevertheless, still regard government as a source not only of order, but also of solutions to the tragedies of life. If government can help advance the common good, it can do so only as far as the vices of its representatives will allow. Not all men are evil wretches, but bureaucrats are no more virtuous than the rest of us. Even if the U.N. does recruit ten experts “of high moral standing and recognized competence in the field covered by the Convention,” they will remain men nevertheless, as will all the social workers who will do their bidding. The Convention docs require that only “competent authorities” serve as representatives of the state: “Children should not be separated from their parents, unless by competent authorities for their well-being,” reads the introduction, but competent authorities seem in short supply. The U.N.’s own child-savers have fallen into scandal: Jozef Verbeek, head of the Belgian UNICEF committee, and his assistant, Michel Felu, were among 18 people ultimately convicted for running a child prostitution and pornography ring out of the Brussels UNICEF office. Introduced as evidence at the trial were 19,000 pornographic photographs and a mailing list compiled on the office computer.

If Verbeek and Felu seem to have ignored the Convention’s condemnation of “the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; and the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials,” it is probably because their employer has been less than dedicated to these same provisions. Only recently was the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) silenced at the U.N. when the International Lesbian and Gay Association, of which NAMBLA is a member, had its consultative roster status to the Economic and Social Council suspended.

One need not look as far as the U.N., however, to find social workers whose behavior does not reflect a heartfelt concern for the best interests of children. That many of their own families are in disarray suggests as much. Indeed, the best of them are like Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who practiced “telescopic philanthropy” on the natives in Africa while her own children shivered and starved in an unclean and unsafe house. Agents of the Illinois DCFS seem unable to care for anyone. Thrice the DCFS seized and returned to his mother an 11-month-old baby boy whom she ultimately hanged with an electric cord. The court file suggests that if ever there was a reason for a DCFS, this case was it. The mother was clearly mentally ill: she had eaten batteries, drunk drain cleaner, and sliced her abdomen, spilling her intestines. When the DCFS does keep kids from their parents, the results are sometimes no better. Recall the infested tenement at the Keystone Apartments in Chicago, from which 19 children were removed. One of these children was later killed by the foster mother with whom he was placed, drowned under the bath tap for failing toilet training. In 1994, in Illinois alone, five children were killed in foster care, and 66 children were sexually abused. The point is not that all children are well cared for by their parents, nor is it that no parent ever abuses his child, but that the state is ill-prepared to take the place of even those parents who are neglectful. To give the state a right to intervene between parents and children is an invitation to abuse.

Even if parental affection and wholesome public opinion do persist at the end of the 20th century, the natural solution to the hard cases—intervention by the extended family—is no longer an option. Nevertheless, the state cannot stand in for the grandparents and kinfolks from whom Americans have severed their nuclear households. Whatever government may decide to do, the hard eases will remain insoluble. No amount of money will cure the stepfather who molests a child or give the crack baby a chance for a normal life. Working instead to restore a family-based society will make far greater progress towards eliminating these cases.

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child will simply exacerbate the ills it proposes to cure. In raising even the least doubt about parental authority, it undermines the one institution in which children are least likely to be abused, least likely to be poor, least likely to be promiscuous, most likely to be healthy, and most likely to be well educated: the traditional two-parent family. In contrast, children in the care of the state are regular victims of abuse, in daycare centers and foster homes. But are children even the point? The U.N.’s distrust of the traditional family and support of “alternate family forms” makes clear that a world of happy, healthy children is not its goal. Can an organization that approves of divorce, homosexuality, and cohabitation genuinely care about children, when each of these aberrations means increased risk, if not certain tragedy, for the children exposed to them?

The question is, who will run the families of the future? Fathers or the state? For Pope Leo XIII, drawing on St. Paul, the answer is clear: “The family is a true society . . . with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the commonwealth . . . governed by a power within itself, that is the father.” This is the doctrine of all sound Christians everywhere, but it is also the common sense of all healthy societies that have ever existed. If world government ever does push its way into the private life of families, then the last obstacles that stand between free men and complete tyranny will be gone.