Just what lesson are children learning as they 'join' protests?


While some 10-year-old boys last week were preparing for a carefree summer of fun, others -- like Steven Engelking -- were in Milwaukee preparing to do battle alongside other veteran anti-abortion protesters. Steven's goal? To do what he has to do to block the doors of Milwaukee clinics where abortions are performed. And he will do it even if it means being arrested for violating a court injunction, one that orders the protesters to stay 25 feet away from clinic grounds.

It's risky business, this kind of activist protesting. Last year in Wichita, Kan., for instance, a group of juvenile anti-abortion demonstrators protested by lying down in front of oncoming cars. But Steven knows what to expect during the six-week, anti-abortion campaign under way in Milwaukee.

After all, the 10-year-old boy from Richmond, Va., has already participated in five "youth rescues" -- the name given to organized anti-abortion demonstrations by children and teen-agers under the auspices of such nationally active groups as Operation Rescue and Missionaries to the Preborn. These children come from all over the country. Often they come in the company of chaperones, not their parents.

But even a seasoned veteran like Steven approaches each protest with some trepidation: "Before the first rescue, I was real nervous," the young boy told Milwaukee reporters last week. "By the second one, I got more into it. They're real scary because some of the times, the cops are rough."

The day after this exchange, 43 children were arrested as they sat, knelt or lay in the street in front of a Milwaukee abortion clinic. Thirty-two of the children were younger than 14, too young to be ticketed. Eleven other juveniles over 13 received disorderly conduct tickets.

Many of the younger children -- who were released to the custody of an adult -- simply scampered back to their protest positions and began all over again. And if you're thinking it's all just a game to these kids, think again.

Or better yet, listen to what anti-abortion protester Rachel McGlade told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune as she knelt at a driveway in front of a clinic. Rachel, whose parents were not in Milwaukee, is 7 years old. She was accompanied from her Florida home by her two brothers, 11 and 14. "In the beginning, it's kind of scary," Rachel said.

Kind of scary, indeed: To be 7 years old and exposed to possible violence, arrest, chaos and who knows what kind of psychological misreading of what's going on.

But "kind of scary" does not begin to describe my response to parents who allow their children to participate in such militant protests. Outrage is closer to the emotion evoked in me.

Forget about pro-abortion rights. Forget about anti-abortion or abortion rights protesters. Forget about which side you're on. It doesn't matter. No parent, in my opinion, has the right to put his or her child in harm's way. No matter how strong a parent's beliefs about a given cause. It is a parent's duty to protect a young child. And to understand that children lack the ability to know what is in their best interest.

And no parent should ever encourage a child to defy or break the law. If a law needs to be defied or broken in the name of positive societal change, let it be done by adults. Not children.

But what if there is no physical danger involved and no defiance of the law? Should young children ever be allowed to participate in controversial events -- in this instance, anti-abortion demonstrations -- that they cannot fully understand? Events that by and large reflect the strongly held beliefs or bias of their parents?

Many parents argue that this is exactly the role of the parent: to instill strongly held beliefs in their children. And to indoctrinate them into the world of values and politics.

They also argue that children need more role models, more family values, more involvement in community life. And that participation in such causes as anti-abortion or abortion rights protests falls under the category of guiding a child in the direction of good "morals" or "values."

But I have some questions about the rights of parents, including:

When do a parent's strongly held beliefs about complex subjects become nothing more than parental dogma; a form of coercive molding of the child? Do parents have the right to press such views on a child?

Or should a parent offer guidance in values and beliefs to a child -- both by example and teaching -- and then allow a child to grow into his own position on certain issues? For many parents, these are difficult questions to answer.

But when it comes to the question of parents using children as instruments for their own goals -- as in the case of Rachel McGlade and Steven Engelking -- I have an answer: It is wrong.

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