2 Nov 2010

More legal protections needed for sick children whose parents reject modern medicine

The Oregonian - July 19, 2009

Faith healing and the law

by Susan Nielsen | Oregonian Associate Editor

Sunday's column: We helped kill little Ava, too

Condemn Ava Worthington's parents all you want. Shake your fist at them for letting their daughter suffer and die without medical treatment.

But let's not kid ourselves here.

We killed Ava, too.

We wrote the laws that maintain a double standard based on religion. We benefit from the same legal system that gives extreme deference to parents. This hands-off attitude toward families is one of the privileges of living in a free society, but it comes at a cost

The cost is named Ava. And Neil. And Bo. And the countless other Oregon children who die in infancy, suffer medical neglect as toddlers or die in adolescence of a treatable illness while their parents choose prayer instead of medicine -- and society politely looks the other way.

We owe it to these kids to make doubly sure our laws give them a fair chance.

Jury deliberations will continue Monday in the trial of Carl and Raylene Worthington, charged with second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the 2008 death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava. Prosecutors say the Oregon City couple let the child die of pneumonia and a blood infection, complicated by an untreated cyst on her neck that affected her breathing.

The Worthingtons admit they knew their daughter was ill. However, they belong to a religious sect that condemns modern medicine. They say the state of Oregon should not punish them for simply following their God.

No matter what the jury decides, the Worthingtons will get special treatment under the law.

In 1999, the Oregon Legislature stripped away much of the legal immunity given to parents who rely on faith healing rather than conventional medicine to treat their sick children. Lawmakers did so in response to an alarmingly high death rate among the children of parents in the Worthingtons' church.

The Legislature was right to change the law. Clackamas County prosecutors were right to do outreach with the Followers of Christ Church about the legal changes, then press charges when they saw signs of fatal medical neglect.

Yet the scales of justice remain tilted in favor of the Worthingtons in two respects.

First, Oregon law still includes several exemptions and defenses based on religious belief, which foster some confusion about liability. The law also allows for much shorter sentences for parents who can claim a religious motivation than for parents who can't. (If you're high on meth when your child dies of neglect, you'll rot in prison. But if you're high on religion, you'll enjoy some grace at the courthouse.)

Second, there isn't much public appetite to increase the government's power to trump parental authority.

Parents like the loopholes that allow them to skip or delay vaccinations, for example, or to try alternative medicine rather than standard treatment. They like the freedom to seek a second and third opinion about their child's medical problem, or to ignore conventional wisdom altogether, when the initial medical advice doesn't feel right.

Nothing's worse than feeling compelled by an outside authority to do something to your child that you don't believe in. Our laws reflect this shared belief -- that the outside world should stay out of your business unless it can prove you're seriously endangering your child.

Parents with mainstream beliefs benefit from this philosophy.

So do parents on the fringes, like the Worthingtons.

I think Oregon should review its faith-healing laws one more time. Ten years have passed since the last big revision. Legal battles in other states, including overturned convictions and revised laws, could be instructive to Oregon. It's possible we could refine our laws even further to retain wide latitude for parents, regardless of their beliefs, while also beefing up legal protections for sick children whose parents reject modern medicine.

This is a great country, where people are free to worship as they please and to raise their children as they see fit.

These ideals are worth preserving. They don't require us to condone medical neglect.

Or turn our backs on kids who otherwise don't have a prayer.

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