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Stripping the Fat from Rights

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Gov.Rick Snyder of Michigan wants doctors to track the body mass index (BMI) of children through a database that currently tracks immunizations and then to report the collected data to the state. (BMI is the ratio between a persons weight and the square of his height; it is viewed as an indication of whether that persons weight is healthy.)

Confusion exists on whether the reporting is required: Snyder calls it voluntary, but one of his spokeswomen told the Associated Press that BMI monitoring will become part of every child’s medical care in Michigan. So far, all sources agree that the reporting will be anonymous; it will not identify the children. Some parents and privacy advocates are not reassured, however. Too many government programs have promised anonymity but have later been used to take action against specific people.

What action could the state take? Failure to thrive is the latest emerging category of child abuse or neglect. Over recent years, child-protective services have started to remove extremely obese children from homes, even loving ones, and to place them in foster care. In less-extreme cases, social workers mandate diets and exercise routines with the implicit (or explicit) threat of criminal charges and loss of custody hanging over parents who do not comply.

As happens with many controversial policies, the state kidnapping of obese children began with extreme cases that elicited little public objection. A headline in the Albany, New York, Examiner (July21, 2009) read, Mother loses custody & is charged with criminal neglect for allowing son to become morbidly obese. The news item opened,

Jerri Gray, a 49yearold mother … was arrested in June on a criminal neglect charge because her son weighed 555pounds by the time he was fourteen years old. Her son was taken away from her and put into foster care…. What has happened to Jerri Gray is rare but not new. In 2007 New York State charged the parents of a young adolescent named Brittany T. with neglect for allowing her to reach the weight of 261pounds, although Brittany’s parents were charged with a misdemeanor, while Jerri Gray has been charged with felonies that could result in significant prison time…. [The] court required Brittany’s parents to purchase a gym membership and take her there several times a week. The court also ordered nutritional counseling and cooking classes for the family.

At least three factors are causing government to extend its reach ever further into kitchens and across dinner tables. First, there has been a general expansion and acceptance of the Nanny State through which the government assumes the role of a parent with willful, ignorant children; unhealthy food is the new nicotine in terms of its current focus. Second, with Barack Obama’s health-care bill, a persons health problems cease to be a personal matter and, instead, become a strain on a scarce public resource (medical care) and a drain on the public purse; in other words, your obesity becomes my problem. The third is the invocation of a powerful political tactic the need to protect children against abuse.

Obesity as child abuse hops the big pond.

As with many politically correct trends, the equating of obesity with child abuse seems to have taken root first in the UK. In his article The onward march of the Obesity Orwellians, Rob Lyons, the author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder explained,

In 2004, the parents of a nine-year-old girl in Derbyshire were threatened with having her removed due to her weight. In 2007, Newcastle social services made a similar threat in relation to an eight-year-old boy, Connor McCreaddie. In 2008, UK council bosses declared that very fat children should be monitored and taken away from their parents if necessary. It should be blindingly obvious to medics and social workers that children simply cannot become as fat as these children without some significant genetic predisposition towards piling on the pounds. The drastic act of taking a child from his or her parents should only ever happen when there is clear evidence of serious neglect or abuse. Yet in the cases of many of these fat children, there is little or no evidence of any such neglect or abuse. Instead, obesity itself is taken to be sufficient basis for extreme state action.

In the UK, the slippery slope began with the government-sponsored weighing of children and with a campaign to improve their eating habits. Then doctors and public agencies provided alarming statistics on childhood obesity that created widespread panic. Then officials blamed parents for child abuse or neglect; public-health spokesman David Rogers declared that parents who allow their children to eat too much could be as guilty of neglect as those who did not feed their children at all. The solution of massive government intervention into the home was not far behind. On September5, 2011, a headline in the UK Daily Mail proclaimed, Parents of seven told: Your children are too fat, so you will never see them again. The news item explained,

Four obese children are on the brink of being permanently removed from their family by social workers after their parents failed to bring their weight under control.

In the first case of its kind, their mother and father now face what they call the unbearable likelihood of never seeing them again.

Their three daughters, aged 11, seven and one, and five-year-old son, will either be fostered without contact or adopted.

Either way, the family’s only hope of being reunited will be if the children attempt to track down their parents when they become adults.

In a bitter irony, the children came to the attention of social workers because their parents asked for assistance with an unrelated problem.

The war on obesity and unhealthy food

The Michigan Care Improvement Registry of children’s BMI being created by Governor Snyder is a small aspect of Americas raging War on Childhood Obesity and on unhealthy food. Declared most loudly by Michele Obama, the war is being pushed forward by the considerable muscle of her husband. For example, as Karen DeCoster colorfully explained (September18), Unknown to many, Benito Obamalini’s budget included a 5-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, except that the FDA obtained a $50M boost, and that is just the beginning for the feds stepped-up enforcement of its Food Tyranny Act.

On health grounds, the government is ratcheting up restriction and regulation of the foodstuffs people are permitted to eat. Limit salt. No trans fats. Avoid fast food. No sodas or raw milk! Put calorie counts on every menu. Butter is bad. No candy machines in public schools.

Along with weighing children, there is an aggressive campaign to impose healthy eating habits. Entire bureaucracies are being created around the idea of feeding school children vegetables and snatching away their sodas. A recent commentary in WorldNetDaily listed a mere handful of the new federal guidelines for public-school cafeterias that will be piled onto old ones this year: Local School Wellness Policy Implementation, Review of Local Policies on Meal Charges and Provision of Alternate Meals, Procurement and Processing of Food Service Products and Commodities, Professional Standards for School Food Service, etc.

Despite those efforts, or because of them, a flood of statistics have been announcing a near-panic scenario. TV broadcasters warn that two million children in America are obese. In a 2009 report on California, more than 38 percent of children in some counties are classified as obese or overweight, the percentages falling into each category being roughly equal. Other reports put states such as Mississippi as high as 44.4 percent. Meanwhile the Child Welfare League of America stated, Today [2008], according to researchers, almost 66% of adults and 14% to 19% of children and adolescents are considered overweight; approximately 33% of adults and 11% of children are obese.

The numbers seem high, perhaps because the term obesity has been redefined in past years to include a far larger population. The data serve a political function. Just as unemployment and inflation data are calculated in innovative ways to minimize social problems that the government has largely caused, so, too, figures on other problems may be exaggerated in order to allow government to rush in as the cure.

A shifting definition of child abuse also facilitates state intervention into food choices. The medical definition of failure to thrive is being expanded. Johns Hopkins offers the traditional definition: Children are diagnosed with failure to thrive when their weight or rate of weight gain is significantly below that of other children of similar age and gender. In short, the children are wasting away from lack of food or the inability to process it. Failure to thrive is now being extended to children who are overweight. A doctor reports, The topic of obesity has surfaced quite a bit in the news these past few weeks. Two weeks ago, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association caught my attention. It spoke of a recent move by California, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas to place severely obese children in state-sponsored protective custody. Supporters of the idea compared the harmful and life-threatening effects of childhood obesity to those of failure-to-thrive and undernourishment the latter two long understood by the legal community to stand for child abuse and neglect.

As in the UK, the next logical step is for the American government at the state level to become kitchen police, criminalizing parents who permit bad diets and kidnapping their children.

How not to cure childhood obesity

Government is not the cure for childhood obesity, either practically or politically.

The following practical objections merely scratch the surface of those possible:

      Studies indicate that children in foster care tend to

gain

      weight.

A UK study

      found that 35 percent of foster children increase their Body Mass Index. Children in foster care exhibit what social workers call increased psychosocial morbidity. That is, they wither socially and cease to interact with others in a healthy manner. In short, they become disturbed and less social. Being taken into custody by the state further stigmatizes children who are already looked down upon for being fat.

It is false to equate a long-term health risk with imminent harm, which is the traditional reason for the state to remove a child. Indeed, there is more reason to believe that imminent harm follows the institutionalization of children.

It is far from proven that a bad BMI reading constitutes a dire health risk. Indeed, there is solid ground for skepticism.

Politically speaking, the most important question about what a person should eat is, Who decides? A free society answers, Everyone decides for himself. The right to eat the food you grow or buy is a fundamental one on which, in the logical extreme, your very existence depends.

The situation is more complicated with children because society does not consider them competent to make such decisions even when they are teenagers. So the state holds the parents responsible and, yet, removes their ability to exercise responsibility when they disagree with the states conclusions. That violates parents basic right to raise their own children. It breaks down the door between the personal and the political, between the home and the state.

Moreover, it is a slippery slope. What form of abnormality will be the next category of child abuse for which parents can be arrested and children removed? Thinness, bad hygiene, being bullies, being pathologically shy …?

Conclusion

No one is arguing for obesity but this is one area in which the state does not belong. In families, as in all other peaceful pursuits, let the individuals involved decide. The family must not become a state institution.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).