Minor's Rights Versus Parental Rights: Review of Legal Issues in Adolescent Health Care

Ann Maradiegue, C-FNP, MSN


J Midwifery Womens Health. 2003;48(3) 

In This Article

Laws that Limit Minors' Rights

Governments have an obligation to protect all citizens and particularly their young people from harm.[13] States, in the interest of protecting public safety, have the authority to limit individual rights. The protective notion of the state, known as parens patriae, assumes that minors are unable to understand fully and consent to the consequences of certain decisions.[14] Parens patriae is possessed by the state, thereby allowing the state to protect its minors health, safety, and welfare. The state, acting in the interest of protecting the minor against her own immature decisions, may impose considerable constraints.[15] All states have codes limiting minors' rights (e.g., the age allowing a minor to obtain a driver's license, the age requirement to attend school, and the legal drinking age) and exerting parens patriae.[16]

In addition, parents have a history of legal precedent giving them the right to raise their children without government interference.[12] One example of the parents' power of authority over control of their children is Meyer v Nebraska.. This case concerned a state statute forbidding the teaching of any language other than English to youth prior to the eighth grade. The District Court of Nebraska had convicted a teacher in a parochial school for teaching German to a 10-year-old child. The parents of the child as well as several other parents in the school were German immigrants who wanted to retain some of their heritage. The Supreme Court found the Nebraska state statute to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which allows parents to establish a home and bring up children. The opinion rendered by Justice McReynolds stated: "Corresponding to the right of control, it is the parents' natural duty to give his children education suitable to their station in life...."[12]

Constitutionally, the rights of minors are protected; however, their rights are not protected to the same degree as an adult. There are three reasons that minors do not have the same constitutional rights as an adult: the vulnerability of children, their limited decision-making capacity, and the important role parents play in making decisions for their children.[17] Various state codes limit minors' rights while trying to balance the protection of the state interest, the parent interest, and the interest of the minor. Requiring immunizations for school is an example of the use of state law to protect the welfare of the greater community and having the ability to supersede the parents' wishes if necessary. State intervention in child abuse is use of state law to protect the interest of the child.[4,12,15]


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