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The Second Time Around

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"I'm definitely going to sail around the world again, or at least give it another try," teen sailor Abby Sunderland told the Australian press after her rescue last week.

Before she does, she and her family might consider doing two things:
paying for the costly rescue and waiting for Abby to turn 18.

Abby and her father keep telling us that age has nothing to do with this. Of course it does. She was trying to break a record -- based on age.
Otherwise, she might have waited until later, when she likely would have faced better weather.

But she's wanted to go since she was 13, her father says. Yes, and so what? So she waited three years. She should have waited at least two more.

Her parents say there is no way they could ever afford to pay for the costly rescue. Then why send your daughter on a mission like this, if you can't afford to rescue her in the very likely event that she needs it?

Exactly who was taking responsibility here? Not her, and not them. Values?

Exactly what are those values?

Her parents say they didn't just train her to sail; they also prayed.

In fact, religious belief, deeply held, has provided the primary occasion for courts to try to figure out the limits of parental responsibility and control. And the Sunderlands, it appears, exceeded those limits.

We have all heard, painfully, of cases where children are diagnosed with serious but treatable diseases, and their parents, for religious reasons, want to forgo treatment. No blood transfusions, no chemotherapy -- it conflicts with the parents' religious beliefs.

Should parents have the right to sacrifice their children's lives in order to abide by their deeply held religious beliefs?

The short answer is no.

The line between parental and state responsibility is where the life of the child is endangered. You can refuse a life-saving blood transfusion for yourself, but you cannot refuse it for your child. You can refuse chemotherapy for yourself, but unless a court determines that your child is indeed a "mature" minor, your refusal will not preclude the hospital from going to court and securing treatment for the child.

I'm not much of a risk-taker. Careening around a racetrack at three-digit speeds is just not my idea of a good time. I've never been tempted to climb Everest. To each his own. We live in a society in which people are free to be adventurers, even when the deck is stacked against them.

But kids should grow up first.

I understand that many people are concerned that today's generation is being raised by worriers like me -- helicopter parents who are afraid to let go of their children. This is not my biggest concern. From where I sit, the problem is not parents who care too much, but those who care too little.

In either case, though, the bottom line is the same. People make different decisions at 16 than at 26 -- or 36 or 46. There is a reason why minors can't enter into contracts. There is a reason why, however strongly they feel about something, the law doesn't view them as "competent."

Abby Sunderland is ready to go again. That hardly proves that she should. And the fact that her parents let her, at 16, is the question, not the answer.

The Sunderlands are the parents of seven, with an eighth on the way.

I can't even begin to imagine what No. Eight will think he or she should do to make a name.

For myself, I've found that being a parent of two is hard enough.
Eight? Responsibility involves more than teaching your daughter to sail. It is not enough to say that your daughter's life is priceless, so someone else should save it. It is a sad day when courts have to intervene to save children from their parents. But someone needs to save this family from itself.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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