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.

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

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

  • An Atheist

    It’s good to hear someone changed their mind. You don’t hear that enough.

  • GSmith

    Great piece. The parents of the Wisconsin girl should have all children permanently taken out of their custody and they should be charged with aggravated child neglect, as well as negligent homicide. They should each spend a minimum of ten years in prison. When the well-being of a child is at issue, religious belief should be no excuse whatsoever. Of course, we are all just beating our heads against a brick wall by discussing what should happen because we know it will not happen.

  • mikespeir

    This is such a sad story. I realize we have to make some allowances for stupidity. These parents were probably fitted with the lenses through which they see the world as children. I know how hard it is to ever have it occur to you that maybe the lenses themselves are suspect. But, dang it, a beautiful little girl is dead now. It really is hard to find an adequate excuse for that.

  • Jeff T.

    Jesus lied. He specifically stated that if two or more people gather together in his name and ask for anything then it shall be granted by God the Father. This verse is in Matthew chapter 18. There is no requirement for some minimal amount of faith on part of the petitioner. There is only a black and white promise—’if 2 or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there, ask and it will be given’.

    These parents asked. Jesus did not deliver. What more proof does any one who is brave enough to face the truth need?

    Religion is common because it is forcibly injected in people from the beginnings of life. People should read what the religion is teaching without bias. I know this is very hard. I was a member of the Church of God until I was 16 years old. It took everything that I could muster to begin to disbelieve the incredible amount of lies that had been used to brainwash me for so many years. It is so easy for one to say that Jesus did not answer the prayer due to the fault of the petitioner, but this is not what the Bible states.

    This story brought tears to my eyes, followed by anger and rage. I was not angry at the parents, for they had done just as their God and their religion instructed them. I was angry that so many people are mindlessly consumed by the religious teachings of an ancient people who had no concept of the intricacies of the real universe.

    I am an atheist. This is why.

  • Christopher

    “Jesus lied. He specifically stated that if two or more people gather together in his name and ask for anything then it shall be granted by God the Father. This verse is in Matthew chapter 18. There is no requirement for some minimal amount of faith on part of the petitioner. There is only a black and white promise—’if 2 or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there, ask and it will be given’.

    These parents asked. Jesus did not deliver. What more proof does any one who is brave enough to face the truth need?”

    I second those sentitments – it never ceases to amaze me how the devout never ask a question so simple as “if there’s a ‘god’ why does he let me die?”

  • Neslock

    “If two or more of you agree on a matter, whatever they ask will be done for them by my Father in heaven.*”

    *Or, in some cases I’ll grant them enough creativity, self-delusion and selective memory to explain away why they didn’t get what they asked for.

  • Danny Haszard

    Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?

    No tolerance.
    They will extol and preach “God’s Kingdom” and this sounds attractive,what they hide from you is their Watchtower cult version that Jesus has already had his second coming in 1914 and is working “invisibly” through them,and all other religions are of satan.

    The ‘religion’ of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a dangerous cult that controls every aspect of its members’ lives.
    Are they knocking on your door?

    Danny Haszard

  • Jewel

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this story, too, and I am absolutely appalled that they probably won’t be charged and convicted. That the police chief didn’t think that letting one child die a horrible, preventable death wasn’t a great big sign that these people are a danger to their children is mystifying.

  • landis

    I heard a brief update on this story on the tv news. It said the police are looking into life insurance policies the parents had on the child who died. It may be they were not acting out of religious beliefs at all and intentially let the child die to collect the life insurance. This brings up a disturbing notion: if anyone who has a life insurance policy on a child or even an adult and that person becomes gravely ill (with an illness that can be treated but if not will certainly cause death), all they have to do is join some religous cult that forbids medical intervention, let the person die and collect the insurance.

  • Karen

    It is horrific, disturbing stories like this that I point to when I see people making the claim that “no one” could really believe religious nonsense and that religious beliefs are essentially benign.

    That any parent could watch a child suffer and die without trying absolutely everything to save them – whether it goes against the church or not – is incomprehensible outside of strong indoctrination into afterlife beliefs.

  • Quath

    What were the 5 states that do not allow for a religious defence?

  • goyo

    Jesus lied. He specifically stated that if two or more people gather together in his name and ask for anything then it shall be granted by God the Father. This verse is in Matthew chapter 18. There is no requirement for some minimal amount of faith on part of the petitioner. There is only a black and white promise—’if 2 or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there, ask and it will be given’.

    Great comment Jeff. You’re right, there is nothing about the faith of the believer in this passage.
    And like Christopher said, it’s incredible that there aren’t more believers that can’t see that any of their prayers are being answered. The occasional coincidence is just not enough. If god or jesus is truly with them, they should be free from disease, and be healed every time they pray. When were jesus’ prayers never answered?
    All religions should be ashamed of themselves and of god, if they don’t have a better answered-prayer record than this.

  • Wedge

    What were the 5 states that do not allow for a religious defence?

    Those would be the states of sanity, rationality, compassion, wisdom, and morality.

  • RedMolly

    I got a call today from the homeschool resource center where my kids take classes twice a week. My six-year-old was in the office complaining of a stomachache, and since our friend takes them to class on Wednesdays, I was half an hour away with no way to get to him. Fortunately, my friend was only five minutes away and was able to go back and console him and determine that it wasn’t a life-threatening condition. But regardless, I was on the phone with the office manager, my friend and my son five times in the next half hour trying to work out if it was something that was going to require him to go to the doctor, and if so, how I was going to get there without a car and where I would take him.

    Reading about a boy just a little younger than my own son vomiting up portions of his own intestine because his parents cared more about appeasing an imaginary vengeful god than about their own son’s suffering–and ultimate death–I am feeling a little sick at the stomach myself. What greater perversion of morality could there be than one that results in parents standing numbly by while their child writhes in agony and fear? What further refuting of the idea that religion equals goodness could anyone require?


    Those would be the states of sanity, rationality, compassion, wisdom, and morality.

    That is absolutely terrific. Thanks.

  • Alex Weaver

    Perhaps someone ought to, as a publicity stunt, set up a campaign to ostensibly lobby for an equivalent religious exception in murder laws for sacrificing one’s own children in rituals, emphasizing that the logic is equivalent. I’d think it’d do quite a bit to call attention to the situation and its absurdity. Maybe a reference to Jephthah in the name…

  • Chris

    If I was unkind, I could say this is some sort of Darwinian process to weed out people who are by breeding inclined to believe in this stuff. On the other than, it’s incredibly cruel to these children. Not only should parents in these cases loose custody, but they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  • Kevin Morgan

    The parents faith should be tested fully. [edit] I’m guessing they won’t go for it when the shoe’s on their foot, but hey, you never know…

  • goyo

    Back when I was a xtian, I used to witness to Jehovah’s Witnesses a lot. I always found them to be sincere, friendly people, but usually not the brightest candles in the box. I think the religion attracts people because of their almost comic book literature, and the fact that they have ready answers for many questions.
    The old literature is still available in some places, and it’s amazing how when you confront them with the blatant contradictions in their beliefs, they turn a deaf ear, and swear by “new revelations”.
    I am an elementary school teacher, and I always have a few witness kids in my class who are not allowed to say the pledge, and participate in innocent activities. They follow the lock-step beliefs of their parents; this has to be a classic example of Dawkins’ theory that religious indoctrination is indeed child-abuse.

  • mikespeir

    “They follow the lock-step beliefs of their parents…” Speaking of which:,2933,345274,00.html,2933,345274,00.html

  • Rita Swan

    Some of your readers asked which were the five states that have no religious exemptions pertaining to medical care of sick or injured children. They are Hawaii, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Maryland, and North Carolina. However, several other states have nuanced their religious exemptions to medical care of sick children so that they really mean nothing. For example, in 2004, we lobbied in Rhode Island for repeal of the state’s religious defense to negligent homicide. The legislators “compromised” and changed a very bad law to: “a parent or guardian practicing his or her religious beliefs which differ from general community standards who does not provide specified medical treatment for a child shall not, for that reason alone, be considered an abusive or negligent parent or guardian; provided the provisions of this section shall not exempt a parent or guardian from having committed the offense of cruelty or neglect if the child is harmed. . . .”

    No such waffling exists for the hundreds of religious exemptions to preventive and diagnostic measures. They are just blanket exemptions from immunizations, metabolic screening of newborns, hearing tests for newborns, prophylactic eyedrops for newborns, Vitamin K for newborns, blood lead-level tests, etc. Two states, Oregon and Pennsylvania, even have religious exemptions from wearing bicycle helmets. The most widespread is the religious exemption from immunizations, which 48 states have.

  • Ebonmuse

    It’s an honor to see you here, Ms. Swan! Thank you for stopping by and enlightening us.

    What I find most incredible (and I believe you brought this up in your interview on Freethought Radio a few weeks ago) is how widespread these religious exemptions are, even though most denominations don’t seek them out, and the ones that do for them tend to be small and relatively non-influential. It seems our politicians are all too willing to bend over backwards to accommodate the most outlandish and dangerous ideas, as long as they come from religion. We have a long way to go before we change that attitude, and I’m glad to know you’re working towards that end. Are there any current efforts or law proposals my American readers could assist with?

    Two states, Oregon and Pennsylvania, even have religious exemptions from wearing bicycle helmets.

    That’s truly got to be the most ridiculous exemption I’ve ever heard. I assume Pennsylvania’s is to placate the Amish, but Oregon? I suppose there’s no restriction on where religious insanity can take root.

  • Valhar2000

    What do the Amish have against bike helmets?

  • Jerry Jones

    The following website summarizes over 500 U.S. court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah’s Witness Parents, including 350 cases where the JW Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions for their dying children:


  • Lakejen

    These situations always remind me of the joke (yes, i know it’s not really appropriate with a joke here but it is actually quite apt) with the Christian who’s afloat at see. Ship after ship comes by and aks if they can help him but each time he answers that god will save him.

    The guy drowns and later at the pearly gates he asks god why he didn’t save him and god replies: “What are you talking about? I sent all those ships to save you.”

    The context takes any inkling of humour out of that joke though. almost makes you cry that anyone could do such a thing to an innocent child.

    I never understood the idea that modern medicin is bad (but then I never understood religion in the first place). Surely if god is everything and everywhere then medicine must be part of him as well. I’m pretty damn sure that antibiotics is not forbidden, much less mentioned, in the bible along with most modern medical techniques (since most of them weren’t bloody invented until the 20th century).

    I seriously hope that the US legal system will get their act together and prosecute those parents for manslaughter or something similar, because that is undoubtedly what it is.

  • Penguin_Factory

    That’s absolutely appalling. In any sane society these stories would evoke nation-wide outrage.

    Maybe atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers should start lobbying for a change to this situation.

  • Chris Swanson

    Why would the Amish even ride bikes?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Excellent writing, Ebon. Thank you — and your correspondents — much.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Oh, and Alex, might I suggest “Jephthah’s Child”? That way it could be a weekly feature on some morning show or other.

  • RollingStone

    I’d like to go up to every Christian “pro-lifer”, show them stories like these, and ask them what they think of Christian parents who REALLY kill their children. How could a person object to the destruction of zygotes and also defend parents who withhold life-saving treatments from their actual thinking, feeling, suffering children?

    Then there’s the euthanasia issue and the Christians who argue that NOT giving medical care to a person in an irreversible coma is murder. What would the anti-medical Christians think of THAT?

    And they all say that it’s “because the Bible says so”…

  • Jared

    I’m also from Wisconsin, and one of my uncles died from pneumonia at age 2. My grandfather chose to pray for healing rather than take him to the hospital. He lives on in my middle name, Michael.

  • StaceyJW

    Would this be the same outcome if the parent was a devout and practicing Satanist? If they attended black mass and worship every week? Would they also be allowed the excuse of religious devotion, or would they get the death penalty? (If they didn’t get ruled insane that is).

    I just don’t see the difference- both Satanism and Christianity are beliefs in supernatural deities- strong religious belief is just that, and any religion can claim it. Religion is often cited by killers and madmen- the voices told them that god wanted them to kill- but why is this not acceptable, but denying medical care with the same end result is OK because of god ?

    You don’t get to kill people (whether through denying medication or with a gun or knife) just because you have certain very strong thoughts- serial killers believe all kinds of crazy stuff, but they are still seen for what they are- murderous anti-social criminals.

    If any other parent did this they would go to jail whether they were smart or stupid. As well as they should. The laws against child abuse exist for a reason.

    Sickening, especially in this century.

  • Polly

    I don’t think sending the fanatical parents to jail would do any good and would probably only harm the remaining children.
    Losing their child is worse, by far, than any punishment the state would mete out. So, the penalties would not act as a deterrent. Plus, they expect a miracle; it wouldn’t factor into any kind of risk analysis prior to the fatal outcome. Not that there’s a whole lot of ANALYSIS going on in any case.

    As awful as their judgment is in this situation, overall they are likely to be better parents than foster care. If suitable relatives that are willing to raise the children can be found, and who don’t hold the same dangerous beliefs, that’s probably the best that can be hoped for. Regular visits from child services until the kids reach adulthood is probably the next best alternative to jail along with mandatory counseling.

  • Dennis

    I live about a baseball’s throw away from the Christian Science Center in Boston. I walk by it from work everyday, and I don’t usually pay it any mind, but I was personally invited to a lecture there in a couple weeks by someone outside. This guy:
    is coming to talk about the “The Certainty of Christian Science Healing”. I guarantee this happens all the time there, that’s what they’re all about. I don’t know what to do; I don’t feel right ignoring the fact that people will show up and believe prayer has an effect in medicine. I suppose I should show up and ask questions loudly about the science if there is a Q&A? I’m new to this. Any suggestions would be helpful.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Ebon, the Prince v. Massachusetts case you link to is about pamphlets, not medical neglect. Are you perhaps thinking of a different case? If not, would you please explain to me how PvM was used in, for example, the Azevedo case you mentioned, or any other case in the past 64 years that adressed child neglect directly.

    I agree, of course, that the death of a child for any reason is tragic, and I do think that a case could be made here for neglect, regardless of the beliefs of the neglectors. As you say, neglect is neglect. Neither Witnesses nor anyone else should be allowed to hold their beliefs up as a shield.

    Unfortunately, I feel obliged to point out that the guilt for “faith inspired” crimes rests on the neglectful parents, not on the other members of their religion, nor on religion as a whole. I should not have to point this out, but it is an easy jump from “these particular believers committed a crime, and used their faith as a pale justification”, to “belief itself is a crime”. Even atheists are not immune to such jumping. (Goyo, I’m looking at you, I’m afraid.)

  • OMGF

    Unfortunately, I feel obliged to point out that the guilt for “faith inspired” crimes rests on the neglectful parents, not on the other members of their religion, nor on religion as a whole.

    If someone incites others to violence, isn’t the inciter held responsible? If the priest incites the parents to neglect their children until death, doesn’t the priest hold some responsibility for the parents’ actions?

  • goyo

    I’m not sure I’m following what you’re saying to me.
    I teach 4th grade. My students are 9-10 years old. They believe exactly what their parents tell them to believe. The parents believe exactly what their pastor tells them, in this case the Watchtower doctrine, which states that under no circumstances should they receive a blood transfusion if their lives are in peril.
    No matter if that doctrine is stated explicitly in their bible or not, that is what they have to obey if they want to stay Jehovah’s Witnesses. If they disobey, they will be disfellowshipped.
    Now, they can believe or not believe in this particular doctrine all they want, but when they act upon it and allow their child to die for want of a blood transfusion, where does the blame lie?
    Of course with the parents, but where did they hear of this teaching in the first place? Who came up with the crazy notion that the bible prohibits blood transfusions?
    Who also puts pressure on the family to “stay the course” and resist all efforts to use a proven medical procedure to save lives?
    Are you going to say that Jehovah’s Witness doctrine is not to blame also?

  • Pastor/Raptor

    Call me a litle late to comment on this, but I don’t understand how this limits itself a ‘atheists vs religion’ thing…Wouldn’t people of ANY faith (that doesn’t also believe in the active suppression of proven lifesaving medical methods) be upset about this kind of “rather die for our beliefs than prove science is right” crap that Jehova’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Scientologists do?

  • bestonnet

    Yes, I suspect that most religious people would be outraged at that kind of crap (if only they heard more about it than just a side mention on the TV at night).

    This is however an example of the possible harm that can (and does) come from religion.

  • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

    This is the sad story of what happens in the religion-mad USA. What happens in other industrialized countries?

  • bestonnet

    Most of the other industrialised countries don’t have it quite so bad, even when they have state churches (at least at the moment, looking through history will give a different perspective).

  • Ben

    These people prove that evolution works.

  • Alex Weaver

    These people prove that evolution works.

    Aside from the fact that memetic pestilences aren’t genetic, and are still being spread…

  • John

    There was such a story here in Australia. However here the parents were sententenced to manslaughter

  • J. James

    C.H.I.L.D! Fight, fight against the dying of the light! Do not go gentle into that good night! I was a child with a terminal disease. If my parents had waited ONE SECOND, I would be dead. In fact, I was one of the first people-all the more remarkable considering I was three- to survive. This treatment of children is evil on a scale not seen since the third Reich.