• U.S.

Domestic Relations: A Mother’s Right & Duty

2 minute read

Clearly, it was time for Mrs. Virginia McLaughlin to tell her daughter about sex. At 13, Mary Ann had given birth to a baby boy. Mrs. McLaughlin sternly ordered the girl to avoid boys. Fearing she might not be obeyed, the Cleveland housewife also instructed Mary Ann to make sure that her next partner used a contraceptive (but didn’t tell her that she could use one herself).

In 15 months, Mary Ann was a mother again; in eleven months, she had her third child. As a result, Mary Ann was packed off to a state school for juvenile delinquents—while Mrs. McLaughlin was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In effect, charged the prosecution at her trial, Mrs. McLaughlin’s advice on how to avoid pregnancy had encouraged Mary Ann to have illicit affairs. A jury found Mrs. McLaughlin guilty as charged, and she was given a suspended sentence of one year in the workhouse and a $200 fine.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. McLaughlin appealed the verdict. Like every state, conceded her lawyers, Ohio is fully empowered to regulate public morals—and the Supreme Court has long been reluctant to interfere with such state power. Nonetheless, the court has also ruled that the states must do their regulating within the frame of the First Amendment’s right of free speech. Mrs. McLaughlin’s lawyers argued that her advice to Mary Ann came under that protection.

The Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Court of Appeals heartily agreed: “The state does not have a substantial enough interest to restrict speech in cases where a mother, in the only way she knows how, instructs her child in ways to prevent conception before marriage.” Duly reversing Mrs. McLaughlin’s conviction, the court asked: “Can anyone argue that it is wrong for parents to attempt to educate their own children in areas which are grossly neglected by our school systems? This is not only a parental right; it is a duty.”

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