Mary Shivanandan

Nurturing as a Basic Right and Responsibility

Mary Shivanandan, MA, STD

In Defending the Family: A Sourcebook, ed. Paul C. Vitz and Stephen M. Krason, Steubenville, OH,: The Society of Catholic Social Science Press, 1998
Copyright The Society of Catholic Social Scientists, Inc.

Rethinking Rights and Responsibilities, Arthur J. Dyck, Harvard Divinity School, argues that nurturing, which is essential for sustaining life, is a fundamental right and responsibility. Criticizing the overemphasis of Enlightenment philosophers on autonomy, Dyck posits moral bonds as requisite for community. Justice demands that not only must the right to life be respected but provision be made for its nurture.

This paper will examine Dyck's overall premise as well as his application of the principle to divorce law in the West. It will also extend the concept of nurture as a basic right and responsibility between parents and children and conclude by showing how Dyck's philosophical analysis accords with Church teaching, especially that of John Paul II..

This paper begins by tracing the development of Arthur J. Dyck's concept of the right and responsibility to nurture as a basic requisite of community. Professor Dyck has been teaching ethics to generations of students at Harvard Divinity School. He proposes to the students the situation of a band of liberated slaves crossing a barren desert, who must organize themselves into a community to survive.

He challenges them to articulate the basic requisites of community, presuming that as former slaves they have had no previous experience in forming a community. [Dyck 1994, 127; 1977, 93, 94] He asks them what this band of ex-slaves should do. One by one Dyck demolishes the students' proposals which reflect the various philosophies of the Enlightenment, for example, Hobbes' with its commitment to armed force and a government to direct it. But who will choose the government and formulate the rules? The students assert that self interest will impel them to work together.

But, says Dyck, self interest also leads people to lie and steal so it cannot be a sufficient base for community. His critique challenges modern philosophers such as John Rawls and Robert Veatch who assume all individuals recognize the necessity of being impartial with others. Alan Gewirth, he points out, even "questions the whole idea that morality can be presupposed." [Dyck 1994, 127-131]

So what then can be the basis of forming and sustaining communities? Dyck directs the students to what will form the core of our paper. He says that if they turn from abstract theories to observations that are readily available to all, they will discover that all individuals have been conceived, born and nurtured in a community. Infants only develop because they are fed, clothed and cared for by others either their own parents or other caring adults.

The adults can only do this if they share resources with each other and protect the infant from killing and other harm. Even if such action is a matter of self interest, the fact is caring communities do exist in the real world. [Dyck 1994, 132]

These escaped slaves, says Dyck, first need to reflect on what they already know to be the requisites of community. He goes on to argue that freedom is a requisite since to be free is the reason the slaves have escaped and are currently in the desert. But they also need to trust each other not to lie and kill and steal either another's wife or property.

Furthermore any community must have a past as well as a future. Honoring one's parents who give life and nurture is essential. In fact, says Dyck, it is "particularly critical, because it is a positive affirmation of procreation and nurture, indeed of life itself." If a people does not honor its parents, they can procreate but not sustain the particular community from which they sprang. You may notice by now that Dyck has described numbers seven to ten of the Ten Commandments as prerequisites for community. [Dyck 1994, 142]

Dyck now tackles the question of rights. According to Hobbes, Bentham and Mill as well as Gewirth, rights reside in "individuals regarded as naturally detached, or rationally detachable, from communities and other individuals." Such rights theories do not acknowledge or specify "the very special, morally significant relations of spouses to one another, of parents to children and of children to parents."

Yet these autonomous rights cannot materialize without first there being procreation and nurture. An individual's right even to be depends on others. Communities, says Dyck, cannot exist without such natural and moral bonds as those between husband and wife and parent and child. [Dyck 1994, 145-147] The extreme individualism of modern rights theories views such bonds as mere social constructions which depend on private attachments, legal and social arrangements.

Dyck draws on the work of fellow Harvard professor, Mary Ann Glendon, to categorize further the relationship between "hyperindividualism" in the American context and the notion of the "lone rights bearer." [Dyck 1994, 322] In Rights Talk Glendon shows how this notion of the "lone rights bearer," which she describes as a "self-determining, unencumbered individual, a being connected to others only by choice," came from the tradition of Hobbes and Locke. [Glendon 1991, 48]

While the tendency towards individualism in the United States has existed since the beginning of the Republic, the interpretation of a privacy right in the constitution greatly accelerated it. Glendon points out that seventeenth and eighteenth concepts of human beings as "solitaries" in a state of nature had a profound effect on civil law especially in the United States, which was not restrained by older traditions of man as a social animal that still existed in Europe. Glendon quotes Sir Henry Maine as asserting in 1861 that "the individual is steadily substituted for the Family as the unit of which civil laws take account." [Glendon 1991, 67-75]

Initially the privacy right or the right to be let alone was invoked by the Supreme Court in relation to marital privacy and contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut but in 1972 it was detached from marriage and family and extended to the unmarried and contraception. It became "a full-fledged individual right" in Eisenstadt v. Baird. [Glendon 1991, 57]

Glendon calls this change "momentous," and one which led directly to Roe v. Wade. Significant for this paper is the fact that it was an attack on the procreative dimension of marriage that greatly accelerated this trend to individualism and the supremacy of individual rights. Dyck has asserted that for a community to survive, it is necessary to affirm procreation and nurture and that moral bonds between spouses and parents and children are requisites for community and without them other rights such as freedom cannot be exercised. [Dyck 1994, 142, 390, 315]

Dyck determines from closely-reasoned philosophic arguments that justice identifies the relationship between rights and responsibilities. He shows that rights are
"just expectations and claims" and are, in fact, a "practical necessity." He concludes that since nurture is a requirement of justice it is both a right and responsibility. [Dyck 1994, 308] He applies this finding to the state of Western divorce law, as does Glendon.

Every human being, he argues, has a responsibility, individual, parental and communal, to provide for the necessities of life for self and others and to foster one's own moral development and that of others. A responsibility to nurture also includes protecting ourselves and others from harm, especially life-threatening situations and from violations of human rights.

Western divorce law since the introduction of no-fault divorce, tends to assume the self-sufficiency of each spouse as an individual. This trend is particularly pronounced in U.S. divorce law which, says Glendon, "has failed to assure either public or private responsibilities for the casualties of divorce." [Glendon 1991, 107]

Not only has the divorce rate greatly accelerated in the past 30 years but the numbers of children living in single parent homes, whether from divorce or unwed pregnancy, has increased even more (The percentage of first-time births to unwed adolescents has climbed from 33 to 81 percent in 30 years.) Since 1970 the divorce rate has tripled with one in eleven adults divorced and one of every six children a stepchild.

Nearly 20 million American children live in mother-headed families, four times the rate in 1950. The number of single parents has risen from 4 million in 1970 to 12 million. About a quarter of households with children under 18 are headed by a mother only and four percent by a father only. Child support in cases of divorce in 1992 amounted to only 67 percent of the total decreed. In 1992 children living below the poverty line were estimated at more than 14 million. [Sweeney, 52-53 ]

As these statistics show children are the primary casualties of divorce in more ways than one. Judith Wallerstein has exposed the emotional harm suffered by the majority of children after a divorce. [Wallerstein, 1980, 1989] According to Dyck's interpretation of rights, these children have had their rights to nurture violated.

The question arises as to whether it is only in the case of divorce that a child's right to nurture in Western society is violated or is there a more general tendency towards neglect of children's right to nurture? Glendon says that "American divorce law in practice seems to be saying to parents, especially mothers, that it is not safe to devote oneself primarily or exclusively to raising children. [Glendon 1991, 329]

Certainly the exodus of mothers of young children into the work place has greatly accelerated in the last 20 years. In 1977 only 13 percent of mothers of children under five used organized day care. In 1993 that figure had risen to 30 percent. It is estimated that more than a million latchkey children return home each day to a house with a gun.

Violence to the young and by the young is increasing dramatically. Most juvenile crimes are committed between 3 and 6 pm and the rate has doubled between 1983 and 1992. Suicide claimed the lives of more teenagers than several of the most serious diseases combined in 1991. [Sweeney, 52-53]

In 1977 psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg sounded a warning of the perils to American society of bringing up a generation of children suffering from the "diseases of nonattachment." The characteristic of this disease is the inability to form human bonds. Those who suffer from it have an "impoverished emotional range." Conscience fails to develop. This emotional impoverishment can be passed to the next generation if they marry and have children. It is extremely difficult, says Fraiberg, to restore the ability to form bonds. Yet attachment occurs naturally in a stable loving family. [Fraiberg, 47-50]

Fraiberg quotes studies by Anna Freud, John Bowlby, and William Goldfarb among others. The period of greatest vulnerability is under two years.

"If we take the evidence seriously," says Fraiberg, "we must look upon a baby deprived of human partners as a baby in deadly peril. This is a baby who is being robbed of his humanity."

In other words he is being robbed of his human rights. [Fraiberg, 51, 53, 62]

Fraiberg and other child development specialists in the 1970s petitioned the courts in custody cases to consider "'the moral rights of infants and children,' the right to know love through enduring human partnerships." The courts must deal with failed relationships in our society to the best of their ability. But what about those parents who actively choose to deposit their children in institutional or substitute childcare where there are few permanent attachment figures?

Fraiberg is deeply troubled by what she found in many childcare facilities she visited, particularly for infants under three years. Children above three can tolerate separations of half a day at a time but that is rarely the situation for the child of the full-time working mother. [Fraiberg, 80-85]

There are many causes of this decline in the nurturing role of mothers. Among them can be counted the feminist movement which espouses abortion not only as a choice but a right, thereby striking at the heart of the mother-child relation. [The Women's Caucus at Prepcom III, No. 7, 1] Not to be overlooked is the trend, especially in the 20th century, to give up breastfeeding in favor of bottle feeding.

Distinguished pediatrician Dr. Robert Jackson states that by 1950 less than 30 percent of mothers of newborn infants breastfed their infants, a 50 percent decline since the 1940s. He cites a study in 1966 that showed less than five percent of mothers still breastfed their infants at six months of age. He attributes the rapid decline to psychological and sociological factors rather than physiological causes.

"Human lactation," he says, "is highly influenced by a wide variety of interrelated factors, including individual emotions and attitudes as well as group-derived attitudes." [Jackson, 18]

Breastfeeding not only provides the perfect food for the baby but "automatically provides an intimate interrelationship (bonding) between the mother and her baby." A hormone called oxytocin is released during suckling which stimulates a nurturing response in the mother. [Jackson, 27, 28, 34]

Medical researcher, Niles Newton, notes that

"on the human statistical level, maternal interest and behavior and breastfeeding have been reported to be correlated in the majority of studies investigating this point."

Care-taking behavior is triggered by coitus, labor and lactation. In fact the physiological responses in all three are remarkably similar. A survey of various societies shows that the most common human pattern is for males to care for the women they live with.

"Basically the male homo sapiens usually defends and protects his vulnerable child-bearing mate and often gives her considerable economic support."

On the other side, women's care-taking behavior, triggered by the pleasure of coitus, usually takes the form of creating a home and caring for the man. The pleasure in breast feeding activates care-taking behavior of the mother towards the child. In this way the children are assured of the presence and care of two adults, a mother and a father. [Newton, 91-93] While it is possible for a mother to combine breastfeeding and full-time work in modern society, it is difficult, with the result that closeness between mother and infant is diminished.

Being a single parent whether because of divorce or being an unwed mother usually results in the primary nurturer, the mother, entering the full-time work force. She does not have the support she needs to perform her nurturing role. Feminists compound this by denigrating the mothering role.

The near exclusion of even the word "mother" from the document prepared for the Women's International Conference in Beijing in 1995 presents a potent threat to the right to nurture. Instead an attempt was made by the feminists and population lobby at the U.N. Population conference in Cairo to instigate a new right to a woman's total control of her own sexuality, exclusive of its relationship to husband or children. Such a right is in the tradition of the "lone rights bearer" which Dyck and Glendon have shown to be a only legal fiction with no basis in reality.

It is in light of these facts and the analysis of Dyck and Glendon that the significance of John Paul II's apostolic letter "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" (Mulieris Dignitatem) can be appreciated. The pope recognizes that "God entrusts the human being to her (the woman) in a special way." [MD, no. 30] And this, he says, "in a particular way determines their (women's) vocation." As for the father he learns his 'fatherhood' from her motherhood. The child needs the contribution of both parents but "the mother's contribution is decisive in laying the foundation for a new human personality." [MD, no. 19]

The mother's nurturing role does not means that the woman is to be excluded from the public sphere. John Paul II has stated that:

There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions. On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of the maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human. [John Paul II 1982, #5, no. 23]

Nurturing the child, however, is not exclusively the mother's role. John Paul II calls for efforts to "restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance." On his 1995 visit to the United States, the pope stated that

"there can be no life worthy of the human person without a culture--and a legal system--that honors and defends marriage and the family. The well-being of individuals and communities depends on the healthy state of the family."

He goes on to quote the National Commission on America's Urban Families which decries the "de-institutionalization of marriage and the steady disintegration of the mother-father child-raising unit" as a grave threat not only to the well-being of American children but even to "long-term national security." [John Paul II 1995b, no. 7]

"Society," says the pope, "must strongly reaffirm the right of the child to grow up in a family in which, as far as possible, both parents are present." This means that fathers must be fully involved in the rearing of their children and take a personal interest in their moral and religious education. Provision of material necessities is not enough. Children need affection and moral guidance.

For Catholic parents the home must become a "domestic church," centered on prayer, witness to virtue and sharing in the joys and sufferings of each member.

"All this," says John Paul II, "is not to advocate a return to some outdated style of living: it is to return to the roots of human development and human happiness!" [John Paul II 1995b, no. 7]

In his "Letter to Families," John Paul II interprets the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, "Honor Your Father and Mother," in a new way when he calls on parents to honor their children. Indirectly, he says, we can speak of the honor owed to children by their parents. To honor means to acknowledge!

"Sons and daughters deserve this honor because they are alive, because they are who they are, and this is true from the first moment of their conception." Further on, describing the family as "the first school of how to be human," he admonishes members of the family: "Be human!" The rights of the family are closely bound up with the rights of the person. [John Paul II 1994, nos. 15-17]

On the basis of natural legal and philosophical principles, Dyck and Glendon show that procreation and nurture are fundamental requisites for the formation and sustaining of just human communities. John Paul II states the same principles in theological terms in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):

By accepting God's gift, man is obliged to maintain life in (the) truth which is essential to it. To detach oneself from this truth is to condemn oneself to meaninglessness and unhappiness, and possibly to become a threat to the existence of others, since the barriers guaranteeing respect for life and the defense of life, in every circumstance, have been broken down. [John Paul II 1995a, no. 48]

What is at stake is more than just the existence of the small band of ex-slaves, the Israelites, in the desert of Sinai. It is, says John Paul II, the existence of

"the world today and of the future, and the existence of all humanity. In fact it is altogether impossible for life to remain authentic and complete once it is detached from the good; and the good, in its turn, is essentially bound to the commandments of the Lord, that is, to the 'law of life' (Sir. 17:11)." [John Paul II 1995a, no. 48]


The study, "Infant Child Care and Attachment Security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care" (Symposium, International Conference on Infant Studies, Providence, RI, April 20, 1996, NICHD Early Child Care Research Network) would seem to contradict or, at least, modify some of the statements in my paper. A closer reading of the study would indicate that is not necessarily the case.

First of all, only one item was measured, infant-mother attachment. In other words it does not take into account other possible effects of long separation between mother and infant, such as for example, fear of abandonment persisting well into adulthood or difficulty forming intimate attachments later. Also the researchers seem to underestimate the natural bond existing between mother and child which persists even in the face of abuse.

An example of this is their puzzlement over the children with insensitive mothers who did better with limited outside child care. They hypothesized that the greater the outside high quality care, the better for the child. A likely explanation is that with limited high quality outside care, the child is able to counteract the mother's insensitivity by having some basic needs met and still maintain a positive mother-child bond. Too much time away from the mother could have the effect of weakening the bond.

A further weakness of the study is not breaking down the category of 30 plus hours in childcare into 30-40 and over 40 hours. With an average of an hour a day for the mother to drop off and fetch the child and/or travel to work herself, 35 hours is still the equivalent of a part-time job yet we know full-time work often demands the child be in day care 45-50 hours per week, sometimes more.

My paper refers, not to part-time work, which can benefit both mother and child according to age and development, but to full-time day care of poor quality and that concern is confirmed by this study.


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The Women's Caucus at Prepcom III. 1994. The Women's Caucus at Prepcom III: Draft Compilation of Proposed Revisions on the Draft ICPD Programme of Action, April 4,1994: Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO)

Copyright ©; Mary Shivanandan 2003

Version: 11th February 2003


Mary Shivanandan