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The interdisciplinary periodical Future of Children has dedicated an issue to children’s health policy. This contribution to the issue maps the legal landscape influencing policy choices. The authors demonstrate that in the U.S. legal system, parents have robust rights, grounded in the Constitution, to make decisions concerning their children’s health and medical treatment. Following from its commitment to parental rights, the system typically assumes the interests of parents and children are aligned, even when that assumption seems questionable. Thus, for example, parents who would limit their children’s access to health care on the basis of the parents’ religious belief have considerable latitude to do so, unless the child’s life is imminently threatened. There are some exceptions to this legal regime. Adolescents have the right to obtain some health services independently; in these contexts, social welfare needs such as pregnancy prevention trump parental rights. Minors also have access to abortion (although this right is more restricted than for adults). Moreover, the state has the power to intervene when parents place their children’s health at risk through abuse or neglect.

A hallmark feature of the legal regime based on parental rights is that the state has no affirmative obligation to help parents care for their children’s health needs. This libertarian framing of the family-state relationship has profound implications for the development of public policy. To the extent the state provides support for families and children, it is doing so as a matter of policy choice (as with Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program) and not enforceable legal obligation. The importance of family autonomy thus results in a weak conception of shared responsibility for children. The framework also means that the state often takes a reactive approach to child wellbeing, intervening primarily when families have broken down or parents have seriously defaulted on their duties. Appreciation of the legal framework underscores the need to develop political support for any initiative to improve health services for children. Often, as this article shows, the state intervenes to promote children’s health only in response to compelling social welfare needs such as crime or disease prevention, or to crises in which parents abuse their children or fail to provide adequate care.


Family Law | Health Law and Policy | Juvenile Law | Law

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


From The Future of Children, a collaboration of The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.