Justice for the Victims of Faith Healing

Justice for the Victims of Faith Healing June 2, 2011

I’m still working through a backlog of interesting stories that accumulated during my vacation, so here’s the first of them.

As freethinkers know too well, claiming that your religion requires you to do or not do something is an almost all-purpose excuse for immoral behavior. It’s frustratingly rare for believers to be punished for wrongdoing when they invoke their faith as a shield. That’s why I’m so unexpectedly pleased to see that rationality is getting a foothold in Oregon, where more and more parents are being prosecuted for withholding medical treatment from their children in preference to faith healing.

Most of the attention is on the Followers of Christ, a small sect that, like the larger Christian Scientists, completely rejects modern medicine and “treats” disease only with prayer. Unsurprisingly, members of this church have a tendency to die of curable illnesses – but if they really want to throw their lives away, that’s their choice, as stupid and senseless as it is. Far more troubling is that their minor children, who can’t give rational assent to these beliefs, are also being allowed to suffer and die for the same reason.

The Followers of Christ first came to light in 1998 when local media reported that the church had a graveyard full of dead children, many of which could easily have been saved if they’d gotten medical attention. Prosecutors wanted to intervene, but their hands were tied by an Oregon law which protected parents who relied exclusively on faith healing. Showing some commendable good sense, the legislature repealed this exemption soon after, but it’s taken years for the police and prosecutors to begin moving cases through the pipeline. The first one was in 2008, and more are coming, like this appalling example:

At birth, the girl, Alayna, was a pink-cheeked bundle, but by 6 months, a growth the size of a baseball had consumed the left side of her face, pushing her eyeball out of its socket. The Wylands, members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect whose members shun medicine, would not take her to a doctor.

These parents are rightly standing trial for this horrific neglect, and their daughter was taken away from them to get the care she needed so badly. In another case, a couple was prosecuted and convicted for allowing their teenage son to die – of a blocked urinary tract, for truth’s sake, something I’m guessing any doctor could have cleared up in five minutes.

But Dr. Douglas S. Diekema, a medical ethicist at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, says that more harm than good may have been done to Alayna Wyland… “For me, the real question is, could you not have done that without taking the child from the parents?” he said. “I think you could accomplish getting some of these kids treated by getting a home health nurse — and if you need a police officer there, that’s fine. But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don’t understand that.”

This is a truly absurd suggestion – that sick children of faith-healing cults should be kept at home, while the police show up every time a treatment is needed to restrain their parents. This is a ridiculous waste of scarce police resources, and shows how some people will bend over backwards to protect the unearned and undeserved privilege accorded to religion.

Under most circumstances, I’d agree that it’s better for children to be left with their parents, but these aren’t most circumstances. These couples are a clear and present danger to the lives and health of their children; they’ve proven themselves unfit to be parents, just as we consider drug addicts or violent abusers unfit parents. The motivation may be different, but the end result, unless the state intervenes, is the same: children dead, for no good reason or purpose.

Nor would sending parents to jail change their preference for faith healing, Dr. Diekema said.

That may well be true, as it’s well-known that religious fanatics consider their beliefs to trump the laws of democratic society. But so what? You might as well say that it’s pointless to jail al-Qaeda leaders because it won’t persuade them to renounce terrorist violence. Justice demands that people who’ve done wrong be punished accordingly, whether or not they admit the wrongfulness of their conduct.

I was happy to see that this article quotes Rita Swan, who’s made it her life’s work to protect children from being harmed or killed by faith-healing delusions, and equally happy that her campaign is bearing fruit. It takes time and persistence, but people’s opinions can be changed. For the children who badly need society’s protection from the dangerous delusions of their parents, that change can’t come quickly enough.

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