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What Hillary said was . . .


THE election campaign this year has been about as bizarre as an election campaign can be. Consider: Hillary Clinton attacked for reminding us that women and children have been held "incapable or undeserving of the right to take care of themselves."

It was, after all, not very long ago that brides quit promising their men to love, honor and obey them. That was a big step, coming after women gained the right to vote and own property. The ancient Greeks barred women from citizenship. In the 18th century, William Blackstone, the English jurist whose codes went into American law, called the family "the empire of the father." Men were the rulers; wives and children were the ruled.

Amid the swirl of rhetoric about "family values" last week came a bit of disinformation about Bill Clinton's wife from Republican National Chairman Rich Bond. He condemned her for comparing marriage and motherhood to slavery. Then, Pat Buchanan won wild cheers at the GOP convention for yet another blast at Ms. Clinton.

Her aims, Mr. Buchanan said, were abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools and women in combat, changes he said cannot be tolerated "in a nation that we still call God's country."

What are the facts?

In 1973, at the age of 27 and two years before she married Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham wrote the lead article in a special edition of the Harvard Educational Review. At the time she was a lawyer for the Children's Defense Fund.

In the article, which was published in part in this week's Sunday Sun Perspective section, Ms. Clinton reviewed the social and legal history of children's rights and then voiced a strong appeal to expand those rights. In particular, she urged legislatures to drop artificial age barriers and allow critical decisions about a child's future to be based at least in part on the maturity of the child.

Only twice in the 27 pages of the article did Ms. Clinton so much as refer to women or marriage. One reference came in a quote from a prominent 1972 law journal article by Henry H. Foster and Doris Jones Freed titled "A Bill of Rights for Children."

This is what those two authors wrote: "The arguments for and against perpetuation of minority status have a familiar ring. In good measure they are the same arguments that were advanced over the issues of slavery and the emancipation of married women."

The passage that stirred Mr. Bond to his irresponsible statement came on Page 493. It was there that Ms. Clinton observed, unremarkably, that children, under law, were "almost powerless to articulate their own interests or to organize themselves into a self-interested constituency."

It was at this point that she mentioned that the rationale for depriving people "in a dependency relationship" of their rights was the presumption that certain individuals were neither capable nor deserving of the right to take care of themselves.

"Along with the family," she wrote in the critical passage, "past and present examples of such [dependency] arrangements include marriage, slavery and the Indian reservation system. The relative powerlessness of children makes them uniquely vulnerable to this rationale."

Who can deny that many wives have been in dependent relationships with their husbands? You don't have to be a feminist to recognize the real world when you see it.

Here we have an example of a thoughtful plea for the rights of children -- the law calls them "infants" until they reach the magic age of 21. Often enough, "infants" have been subjected to parental abuse or hurtful decisions.

Strange as it may seem, these attacks on Ms. Clinton's defense of children's rights come from the same people who speak about a "right to life" in the name of "family values." These same people pant for the birth of unwanted infants, only to subject them to a form of legal slavery.

Among the rights Ms. Clinton demanded for children those 19 years ago was a right to a decent education, a right that had been proclaimed in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case banning racial segregation in public schools. That right, however, was not extended to children of parents who may have wanted something other than the religious education desired by their parents.

She cited one case, Wisconsin vs. Yoder, in which the Supreme Court upheld the position of Amish parents whose religious scruples opposed the education of their children beyond grade school. Justice William O. Douglas dissented, holding that the children ought to have had the right to be heard in court.

"It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled," Justice Douglas wrote in his dissent. "If his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed."

Mr. Bond, Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Bush, it is the future of democracy that is imperiled by the cynical repetition of false information.

J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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