No Religious Exemptions from Child Abuse Laws

Several people have mentioned this tragic story from Wisconsin, in which an 11-year-old girl died of juvenile diabetes after her parents decided to pray for her recovery rather than seek medical help. Shockingly, the town police chief said that “there is no reason to remove” her remaining three siblings from the home. Haven’t her parents already demonstrated that they are a clear and present danger to the well-being of their offspring? The district attorney is considering filing charges, but if past experience is any guide, not much is likely to result.

This kind of tragedy has happened many times before. Here’s one example: Rita Swan was raised a Christian Scientist. In line with the beliefs of that sect, which believes only in healing through prayer and categorically rejects all evidence-based medicine, she never took her children to the doctor. This policy worked well until 1977, when her infant son Matthew became feverish shortly after his first birthday.

Some fevers clear up on their own, but Matthew’s did not. Over the course of several days, he grew steadily worse, screaming in pain, suffering from racking sweats and convulsions. Rita Swan, in line with her sect’s beliefs, brought fellow Christian Scientists to her home to pray for his recovery. When the prayers failed to have any effect, Rita’s fellow practitioners told her that she and her husband Doug were obstructing Matthew’s healing by failing to fully trust in God.

After twelve days of suffering, Rita and Doug finally took Matthew to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. This disease is 95% curable with antibiotics if treated early, but they had waited too long. After a week in intensive care, Matthew died. One of the Swans’ fellow Christian Scientists later said to them, “Life on earth is such a pinprick, what does it matter?”

Matthew isn’t the only child of Christian Scientists to die from easily treatable medical conditions. Other children have died from diabetes, from appendicitis, from allergic reactions to insect stings, and from cancer. Most horrible of all was the 1986 case of Robyn Twitchell, who suffered a twisted bowel that worsened into peritonitis when his Christian Scientist parents refused to take him to the hospital. Robyn suffered horrifically for five days until he died; by the end, he was vomiting up blackened portions of his ruptured intestine.

It’s not just the Christian Scientists who refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for refusing blood transfusion, and children have died as a result. (The last link is to a May 1994 issue of Awake!, the JWs’ magazine, which had a cover story celebrating children who died due to their or their parents’ refusal to permit transfusions.) In a more recent case, the infant son of Maria and Jose Azevedo was born with transposition of the great arteries, an easily correctable birth defect that is certain death without treatment. The surgery requires blood transfusion, and the parents, though they clearly wanted to save their son’s life, refused to grant permission. In the end, the hospital successfully sought a court order to perform the surgery without parental consent.

There are smaller sects that spurn medical care as well, including the “Followers of Christ“, a breakaway Oregon sect. At least 21 children of parents in that sect have died of treatable illnesses since 1955, most recently a 16-month-old girl who died of bronchial pneumonia that developed into sepsis.

In 1944, in Prince v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a cogent ruling: “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children”. This is solid reasoning that strikes a just balance between religious freedom and the state’s legitimate right to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Adults of sound mind may reject medical treatment for themselves, if they wish, but they may not make the same decision on behalf of their children before their children are mature enough to endorse it. This way, children have a chance to grow up to reject their parents’ beliefs, if they so choose.

Sadly, this good reasoning has not been more widely adopted. In all but five states, parents who let their children die from treatable illness can invoke religious beliefs as a defense against charges of neglect or child abuse. This is a shameful and unconscionable state of affairs. Neglect is neglect, regardless of the motivations behind it. Not only is this an example of the special rights given to theists – there is no comparable exemption for non-believers, needless to say – it puts every child in those states at risk of suffering an agonizing death because of the superstitious ignorance of their parents.

There is one silver lining to Rita and Doug Swan’s tragic story. After Matthew’s death, the two of them left the Christian Science faith and founded a nonprofit group, CHILD – Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty – that lobbies for the end of these outrageous religious exemptions to child-abuse laws.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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