31 Oct 2010

When Religion Becomes Child Abuse

The Washington Post - May 22, 2009

By Susan Jacoby

What should be done when parents rely on religion instead of medicine to heal sick children?

This is a no-brainer in every sense. In life-threatening situations, parents should not be permitted to withhold established, non-experimental medical treatment from their children for any reason--including but not limited to religious reasons. Religion has no special standing here. Any adult has the right to refuse any kind of medical treatment, but no parent should have the right to condemn a child to death because of religious beliefs--or, for that matter, because the parent doesn't trust doctors or science.

That goes for the Minnesota mother who fled with her son because she does not want him to have the radiation and chemotherapy that have produced a 90 percent cure rate for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in children. Without treatment, the boy has only a 5 percent chance of living. Case closed. Presumably, now that she has returned with her son, the state will use every legal means to ensure that the boy receives treatment.

This is not an exercise of religious freedom but a form of child abuse. The law has evolved on this subject--but not nearly fast enough--during the past century, as the ancient notion that children are the property of their parents has fallen out of favor. Parents do not have a legal right to beat their children within an inch of their lives or sell them into slavery (practices approved in the past by many religions). They should not have the right to let children die for lack of medical care either. If the Minnesota mother does not bring her son back for cancer treatment, she should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment. If he dies untreated, she should be prosecuted for manslaughter and/or criminal negligence.

Charging the mother with murder would be inappropriate, since any intelligent defense lawyer (instead of arguing that the First Amendment permits religious parents to kill their kids for religious reasons) would plead insanity or extreme emotional distress as a mitigating circumstance. And that is exactly what such parents are--insane. Believers in faith healing that excludes medical treatment are every bit as insane as schizophrenics who hear voices directing them to kill, and if they are not charged as criminals, they should be treated as incompetents by the courts. The reason we don't call this form of insanity by its right name is, as usual, the extraordinary deference to religion accorded by American society.

And although the law has evolved somewhat on this subject during the past 20 years, there is still a strong sense on the part of many jurists that parents do have a right to impose their own religious views on their children--not only because of the First Amendment but because of the traditional idea that parental control over the young ought to be absolute. Read the chapter on "God's Law" in Caroline Fraser's meticulously researched 1999 book on Christian Science, God's Perfect Child, to see how lightly the U.S. courts have dealt with parents whose children died in agony of diseases ranging from untreated juvenile diabetes to meningitis. Even when parents are convicted, they are frequently let off with a slap on the wrist and ordered to provide medical treatment for any remaining children. In my court, these children would be closely inspected by public health officials once a month, and the homes would be visited by a nurse at least once a week. As for those who believe that government has no business interfering with "parental rights," I say that a parent's rights end when a child's life is threatened.

The case of the Wisconsin mother, Leilani Neumann, convicted last week of second-degree reckless homicide because she allowed her diabetic daughter to die without treatment, raises some further issues. This 11-year-old girl had not been to a doctor since she was three years old. She must have missed a great deal of school, not only in the weeks before her death but over the years. Where were the schools? Where were relatives and friends? The woman's mother-in-law only advised her to get her child to a doctor after she was already in a coma. "I told her she better get her to a doctor or hospital real fast," the mother-in-law testified. "She wanted us to come over and pray with them to get Kara well. I said, `No, we are going to church and we will pray for her there.'" It didn't occur to the mother-in-law to call 911? Yes, it certainly makes sense, if you suspect that your grandchild is dying because of her parents' religious convictions, to go to church and pray instead of calling the cops.

Marathon County District Attorney Jill Falstad, who prosecuted the case, described Neumann as a religious zealot who let her daughter die as a test of faith. "Religious extremism can be dangerous," Falstad said. "In this case, it was fatal. Basical medical care would have saved Kara's life--fluids and insulin." The defense attorney, Gene Lineham, described his client as a devout Christian who took good care of her four children. "Religious extremism is a Muslim terrorist," Lineham said. "They are saying these parents were so far off the scale that they murdered their child. The woman did everything she could to help her. There is injustice in this case." Yes indeed. There was injustice in this case--to the dead child.

There will be an appeal on behalf of the mother and the father, who is being tried separately. And Deepak Choprah is mistaken in his suggestion that American courts have always sided with treatment. This conviction could still be reversed--many such convictions have been in the past--because of the ridiculous claim that religious freedom ought to protect these parents, who did not take their daughter to a doctor even when she could no longer walk or talk. The parents' Bible study partners only called 911 after the girl had stopped breathing. "A religious extremist is a Muslim terrorist." What a breathtakingly ignorant statement! Religious extremists are also Bible study group members who who don't call 911 when a child is in a coma.

The case of the untreated diabetic girl strongly resembles many more conventional child abuse tragedies, in that all sorts of people knew something was very wrong and did nothing to intervene.

I should emphasize that legal requirements apply only to accepted medical treatment, proven to be effective. A treatment that cures 90 percent of patients is standard. I'm not suggesting that a parent should be required to subject a child to an experimental therapy with only a minuscule chance of cure--although many parents would. What we're talking about here are established treatments that work. Jehovah's Witnesses have no right to deprive a hemmorhaging child of a blood transfusion. Christian Scientists have no right to refuse antibiotics to treat a child with bacterial pneumonia.

The wishes of a minor, by the way, are of no consequence here. If a child is raised to believe that God will heal his body without medical intervention, the chances are that he will not begin to think for himself until he is much older. But then, the diabetic child of the Wisconsin parents will never have the chance to grow up and think for herself. The 13-year-old boy who returned to Minnesota with his mother over the weekend agrees (surprise!) with his parents' rejection of medical treatment. This boy is not old enough to get a driver's license, and he is certainly not old enough to make an informed decision about his medical condition. If he is a typical, poorly educated American teenager, he probably can't even tell the difference between a 90 percent and a 5 percent chance of survival.

It takes a long time for the law to step in when confronted by all cases of religious abuse of children, whether they involve marrying off 14-year-old girls to godly old men in isolated compounds or neglecting a child who is dying right before the parent's eyes.

Parents do have a legal right to fill their children's brains with religious beliefs of all
kinds--however extreme, however crippling to the exercise of reason. But they do not have a right to sacrifice their children's bodies to adult delusions. This observation also applies to parents with nonreligious beliefs that rule out standard medical care. Fortunately, most believers in alternative medicine do not reject science-based medicine; they simply add alternative methods to the menu of medical care. But a parent who rejects surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and relies only on herbs to cure childhood cancer should have no more rights regarding the treatment of his child than a religious believer who would leave a child's life--and death--up to a perverted notion of God.

No doubt many of these believers in faith-healing do have the best interests of their children at heart, in that they think it is better for their child to be released into an eternal paradise than to do what is necessary to continuing living on this earth. But I repeat: children are not the physical or emotional property of their parents.

This is not, by the way, a debate between faith and science or faith and medicine. Most religious believers have ample room in their lives for both, and one does not rule out the other. Although conventional wisdom maintains that faith is an aid to recovery from illness that has been treated medically, there is no evidence that this is so. The only double-blind study designed to test the efficacy of prayer, financed by the John Templeton Foundation, found that people who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse after heart surgery than others. Devout believers then decided the study was badly designed and meaningless, because its results did not fit their preconceptions. I suppose eventually, someone will waste more money to determine whether atheists or religious believers respond better to cancer treatment. Just imagine, the people who finance such studies could actually be spending their money on useful research to improve the health of both believers and nonbelievers. Or on a health care system that is available to the poor as well as the wealthy. People in this country die every day from lack of medical care; they do not die from lack of faith.

The difference between religion and religious derangement is that the deranged actually believe that God does not require any assistance from human doctors. The DA in Wisconsin called it like it is: religious extremism can be dangerous. The kind of religious extremism that kills children should be illegal in this country. Let these parents test their primitive beliefs on themselves, not on their helpless young.

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