29 Oct 2010

$3 worth of medicine could have accomplished what prayer alone did not

The News-Sentinel - Indiana May 30, 2009

Doctors part of God's will, too

This isn't the first time local authorities have been frustrated by parents citing faith in refusing medical aid for children

by Kevin Leininger| Opinion

Awakened by the sound of coughing, a young Whitley County father lifted his sickly infant from his crib and pleaded for divine healing before Joel Hall died of pneumonia just 26 days after he was born.

Saying $3 worth of medicine could have accomplished what prayer alone did not, a judge sentenced Gary and Margaret Hall to five years in prison (later reduced) for reckless homicide and child neglect - one of more than 100 deaths linked to the Faith Assembly, a Noble County-based sect that taught members to place their health care faith and fate in the hands of God, not doctors.

That was 25 years ago, but time had done nothing to blunt Robert Alderman's uneasy sense of déjÀ vu this week as a Minnesota mother left the state to avoid chemotherapy for her cancer-stricken son and a Fort Wayne couple resisted a transfusion of blood for their anemic baby daughter. In each case, the parents cited religious beliefs in their decision to forgo the prescribed medical care.

It's a potentially deadly decision Alderman unsuccessfully tried to address while serving as a Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives a quarter-century ago, and he's convinced the need is still there, despite the Faith Assembly's subsequent demise following the 1984 death of founder Hobart Freeman.

He's right.

“I thought about the Faith Assembly when I read about that Minnesota case,” said Alderman, who today directs the Indiana Department of Transportation's Fort Wayne District. “I understand about freedom of religion, but what about children who can't make choices for themselves? (Legislators) have a responsibility to society. To me, it was always a matter of ‘equal protection under the law.' ”

In 1983 - the year before Joel Hall's apparently preventable death - Alderman proposed a change in state law in response to an exceptional series of stories by The News-Sentinel's Jim Quinn and Bill Zlatos exploring the Faith Assembly and the tragic consequences of its doctrine. Alderman's bill would have made it a felony to deny a spouse or child medical care, even for religious reasons, if lack of treatment caused serious injury or death. Then-Gov. Robert Orr signed a bill the following year - one that had been watered down, requiring only that people report situations in which children need medical services. The law also provides a defense for parents who provide “spiritual treatment.”

That defense still exists in the state's child-neglect laws today according to Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, who said she has not been confronted with a single case of alleged religion-influenced abuse since taking office seven years ago. That suits her just fine, because Richards understands “it's really hard to say” when a parent's prayer for a child evolves from an act of love, faith and hope into a crime.

Indeed it is. For all the excellence of The News-Sentinel's Faith Assembly coverage, its one shortcoming may have been a certain lack of sympathy and understanding for parents who sincerely believed they were following God's will by substituting prayer for medicine. Most of them, I'm certain, loved their children. They weren't evil, simply tragically misguided. Nor is there any guarantee that all of those more than 100 Faith Assembly members would have been saved by traditional medicine. Even so, Alderman is correct: If adults want to deny themselves medical care in favor of prayer, that's their right. Their right to make that decision for their children, especially those too young to understand profoundly complex issues - is far more questionable.

Happily, a judge's decision this week may have spared Richards that difficult choice. Allen Superior Judge Dan Heath authorized Dupont Hospital to inject a blood substitute into the anemic daughter of parents whose Jehovah's Witness faith rejects the transfusion of blood on religious grounds. Dupont reserved the right to transfuse blood to save the baby girl's life, if necessary.

But what if religious parents refuse to seek treatment for their children at all?

Believe it or not, that reminds me of a joke:

A flood was threatening a town, but a man named Joe refused to evacuate. As the waters rose, his neighbor came by and said, “Come with me, we've got to go.” But Joe declined, saying, “I'm a devout man, God will save me.”

But the waters kept rising, so Joe scrambled to the second floor. A firefighter in a rowboat came by and said, “Get in or you'll drown.” Joe again declined, insisting, “God will save me.”

Finally, the flood waters force Joe to his roof. A police helicopter came by and threw down a rope. “Climb up or you'll drown,” the officer yelled. Joe refused again - and drowned.

“Why didn't you help me?” Joe asked God after arriving in heaven.

“What do you mean?” God says. “I did help. I sent a neighbor, a firefighter and a helicopter.”

Doctors, too.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.

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