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In the pages of the Times of Trenton on January 20, a psychologist named Ronald J. Coughlin published an op-ed titled “Fundamental Changes Would Better American Society.” Mr. Coughlin is worried about a lot of the right things: alcohol abuse, the divorce rate, childbearing out of wedlock (particularly among teens). But what ideas he has for “fundamental changes”! The idea, for instance, that because science tells us about the maturing brain we ought to raise the drinking age to twenty-five is going to go over big, with an electorate that can vote at eighteen. (Mr. Coughlin may want to change that too, for all I know.) 

The real jaw-dropper, however, comes in Mr. Coughlin’s proposals about marriage and childbearing: 

To prevent divorce and strengthen families, all couples seeking marriage licenses would be required to go through two or three months of training to learn about relationships, similar to the way one goes through training to get a driver’s license. In order to obtain the license, the couples would have to pass an examination showing mastery of the elements of a successful, long-term relationship. 

To reduce and eventually eliminate the tide of teenage birth in our country, all parents would be required to have a license in order to have a child. Prospective parents would have to go through rigorous evaluation as well as certification in order to have children.

I’m sure Mr. Coughlin is a well-meaning gentleman, or I’d like to think so anyway, so I wonder if he knows that he has backed himself into fascism. I use that word advisedly, and not to set out troll bait for the comboxes and the twitterverse. 

Many churches offer counseling (they rarely call it “training”) to couples planning to marry. The Catholic Church in particular offers and sometimes requires a “Pre-Cana” process so that couples understand the sacramental and other vital features of the bond they intend to create with one another. But I think Mr. Coughlin envisions the employment of state agencies for this, backed by state power. Take the course, pass the examination, or you cannot be married. Anyone who trusts the bureaucrats of the modern state to administer such a system wisely, without the routinization of tyranny, is far too naive to be practicing psychology. 

But then we come to his related prescription: “a license in order to have a child.” No one sensible wants unwed childbearing, easy divorce and child abandonment, and an increase in the number of single teen moms. But if Mr. Coughlin would think through the inexorable logic of his own proposal, it is this: The state decides if young people who want to marry are “ready” for it, and says “no” to those who do not meet its standards. The state then “certifies” some of the couples it permits to marry to be parents—but not others. Presumably no single woman would be so certified. And when the inevitable happens, and some young women (married or single) get pregnant without the state’s prior certification of their privilege to be mothers? 

Mr. Coughlin’s bright idea has no hope of working without a system of forced abortion administered by the state. No system requiring “a license in order to have a child” has any chance of working in practice—so long as young people do what young people have always done—without taking young pregnant women by the arm, escorting them into abortion clinics, and compelling them to submit to the killing of their children. 

Mr. Coughlin has in fact proposed a totalitarian horror of the kind that has made China a living hell for young couples who want more than one child. If he has thought this through, he is a fascist, perhaps in the American eugenic division (see Sanger, Margaret). If he has not thought this through, he is a very great fool. I pray he is only the latter.

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

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