Inking Arms, Piercing Ears, and Removing Foreskins: The Inconsistency of Parental Consent Laws

If a 10-year-old gets a tattoo, should the mother be arrested? The State of Georgia says “yes.” 

Gaquan Napier watched his older brother die in Acworth, Georgia after being hit by a speeding car. He was with him in those numbing final moments. And now Gaquan wants to keep his brother close to his own heart as he picks up the pieces and moves through life: in the form of a tattoo on his upper arm. Malik (that’s his brother’s name) plus the numbers from Malik’s old basketball jersey. Rest in peace. A memorial to his sibling and best friend, whose life was cut tragically short.

Gaquan is ten years old. So he asked his mother, Chuntera Napier, about the tattoo. She was moved by the request, by the sincerity and maturity of her son’s motivations. She consented. She took Gaquan to have the remembrance he wanted etched into his arm in ink.

Now stop the presses. Chuntera was arrested earlier this year under child cruelty laws and for being party to a crime. Someone at Gaquan’s school had seen his tattoo and tattled to the authorities. But what was the offense?

A 2010 Georgia law states that it is categorically unlawful “for any person to tattoo the body of any person under the age of 18, except a physician or osteopath.” When it comes to tattoos, that is, parental consent is legally irrelevant in Georgia.

But why should that be so? Can someone make a moral argument for this? Is it because tattoos are irreversible, and some young kid might want a really silly tattoo that he’ll later regret? And some parents are so bad at being parents that they might allow their kid to get a really silly tattoo? And then the kid might be teased? And all of that would somehow amount to child abuse? Please fill me in.

The state, of course, does in some cases have the moral authority to override a parent in the upbringing of her child. My position is not that parents should always get the final say. Where clear-cut abuse is involved (hard as it sometimes is to pin down the clear-cut-ness of alleged abuse), then in the interests of the child, the parent should be trumped. But with respect to tattoos, why should the ban be absolute? Are tattoos so inherently harmful — so self-evidently abusive to a child who possesses one — that the pendulum of power should swing so dramatically stateside?

That’s not the worst of it. The truly troubling part involves a deep inconsistency in Georgia law regarding parental consent in general. This point can be made by offering a stark point of contrast. It is perfectly OK, under Georgia law, for a parent to consent to the surgical removal of her son’s foreskin, before he is able to form words or express an opinion, in a medically unnecessary, irreversible procedure which I have argued elsewhere is deeply immoral and should be banned. Tattoos? No way. Invasive, medically useless, nonconsensual genital surgery? Go right ahead.

So what is going on here? How can it be that neonatal circumcision is OK, and taking your baby daughter to have her ears pierced is fine – but allowing your 10-year old to memorialize his brother in the form of a tattoo lands you jail?

Parents exercise consent on behalf of their children, and rightly so. Children’s brains are not yet fully formed, and they are notoriously bad at making long-term decisions to their own benefit. But you can’t let your son or daughter do just anything, nor can you consent to just anything’s being done to your child’s body – and that’s appropriate too. You can’t consent to your 10-year old owning a shotgun; you can’t consent to cutting off your daughter’s ears or selling her liver – there are limits, and they have to do with harm and cruelty and risk to society. So far we’re safely in the territory of common sense.

But there are two big questions left over.

(1) Why should a parent be legally prohibited from consenting to her 10-year-old son’s getting a tattoo?

(2) Why should a parent not be legally prohibited from consenting to the circumcision of her speechless newborn?

I have answered (2) – at length – in an earlier post. The punchline is that — contrary to the law as it currently stands — parents should not be allowed to consent to medically irrelevant circumcision before the child himself is capable of stating his preferences about his own penis. Consent is the magic word, and the fulcrum of the whole debate. Read here for the full argument, relevant data, objections and replies.

The answer to (1) follows the same basic logic: people should be able to make decisions about what happens to their own bodies. Nobody else should be able to make decisions about a person’s body unless that person is incapable of giving consent and the intervention is medically necessary and the person making the decision is that person’s legal caretaker.

Tattoos are (mostly) irreversible. If your child didn’t ask for it, and certainly if the child is pre-verbal, you shouldn’t be allowed to shove a tattooing needle under his skin. That much is clear. But if the childdoes want a tattoo, then he should be able to say so and make that decision about his own body, so long as you, as the parent, taking everything into consideration, and exercising your own best judgment, consent.

Now, if your 10-year-old wants to get a tattoo of SpongeBob SquarePants on his forehead, you should probably say no. If your 10-year-old wants to memorialize his dead brother with some ink on his bicep, then you can still be a good parent and say yes. That’s true even if I, or some other parent, or the community at large, might want our own sons to wait a few years first. It’s a judgment call, and it’s not our concern.

Same goes for ear piercing. If a little girl wants to have her ears pierced, and her parents consent, there is nothing ethically problematic. But if the girl can’t yet sing her ABCs, then hold off on the hole-punch. If your little baby boy can’t yet pronounce sentences in his native tongue, then keep the scalpel out of his diaper. Let’s stop lacerating our children’s bodies for our own enjoyment. Let them speak their wants, when they’re able to speak their wants.

Like Gaquan. He expressed his desire. He wanted the tattoo. His mother thought it was a good idea. That the state should mark this out as illegal, and send in the authorities to arrest a citizen who’s done no harm is a gross injustice. If you don’t want a tattoo, don’t get one. If you don’t want your son to have some ink in his arm at his own request, then don’t take him to a tattoo parlor. Otherwise leave this grieving family alone and mind your own business.

Here is the upshot: if you can legally consent to your son’s foreskin being severed, when he is just-born and can’t yet speak — though you cannot morally consent to this, as I have argued — you should be able to consent to his getting a tattoo to memorialize his dead brother, when he specifically asks for it at the age of 10.

Originally posted at Brian Earp’s blog, Practical Ethics, at Oxford University
photo by dno1967b / flickr
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About Brian D. Earp

Brian D. Earp is a researcher in psychology, philosophy, and ethics at
the University of Oxford. He is also a professional actor and singer.
For more, visit: http://oxford.academia.edu/BrianEarp/About

Comments

  1. John Anderson says:

    How is it best to enforce a law when it concerns children? Is it better to wait until abuse happens before addressing it as was the case? I don’t wish to characterize it as abuse, but that is what the law determined and what if the parent allowed the child to tattoo Spongebob on his forehead? Is it better to prevent the parent from exercising this discretion until reviewed by a third party like the way judicial bypass laws work in abortion cases except that the parent would be seeking a waiver of the law.

    What would happen if the child waited until he was 18 or even 13? Would he not want the tattoo? If not, there’s your answer. If so, he could still get it. Until then maybe a locket with his picture could serve. I think children should be allowed to get tattoos with parental consent, but 10 is too young. They should at least hit puberty first.

    From what I understand, if you don’t put something in your ear, the hole will close up. I don’t know if this becomes unnecessary at some point and the hole becomes permanent. There is risk of infection, but it could be minimized through regulation and there is no permanent loss of hearing or other utility so it should be okay. I believe that a parent should be restricted to one whole each ear. When the child turns 18 they could decide on more.

  2. I’m biased on this topic. I’m pierced and moderately tattooed person and nothing ruined my experience at the shop faster than parents dragging in their 15/16 year old (almost universally) daughters to get some work done. They screeched, squealed and obviously were not thinking about what the long term effects of what they were about to do. But the parent’s consent. While I don’t see it as abusive I do see it as questionable.

    I also find it interesting that parents and minors are allowed to consent to getting their ears gunned at a shop in a mall but can’t walk into a piercer and get it done correctly with the right tools. More over tools that are able to be sterilized and not necessarily have microspatter of disease spreading blood on them. Or at least here minors can consent. So you have one 17 year old girl wielding a dirty weapon to poke a hole inappropriately on another minors body (some of these mall stations will gun your nose or the cartilage on your ear etc.). But heaven forbid if that same child goes to a clean piercer.

    Tattoos and piercings are heavily stigmatized other than the female ear piercing thing. I feel that law derives from the stigmatization of that whole industry more than it does from the potential of abuse.

  3. Random_Stranger says:

    So what would happen if a parent consented to having his son’s foreskin tattooed?

  4. Very well argued brian. There should be a ban on forced infant Child circumcisuon for boys as there currently is for girls

  5. Certainly a very valid argument. Unneccisary Neonatal circumcision should be banned. My mother is a GP and she always advises against it. If the human body was ment to have a piece of shin cut off it, I dont think evolution would have allowed it the come into existence. Having an infant circumcised for non medical reasons is totally cosmetic and entirely cosmetic.

  6. Anyone who can be trusted to decide whether or not to have an abortion should be able to decide on their own whether or not to get a tattoo.

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