10 Nov 2010

Provision in U.S. healthcare bill endangers children by including pray and faith healing as legitimate clinical medicine

The Pitt News - University of Pittsburgh November 4, 2009

Government funded faith healing neglects Constitutional restrictions

by Giles Howard | Pitt News Columnist

Believe it. There’s a version of the Senate health care bill that would elevate faith healing to the level of clinical medicine, the Los Angeles Times reported. [see story below] The provision, inserted by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, with the support of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, is designed to reimburse individuals for Christian Science prayer treatments.

Based in Massachusetts, the Church of Christ, Scientist is a Christian denomination that eschews clinical medicine in favor of faith healing and specifically encourages the use of prayer to heal people. They charge between $20 and $50 per day for this prayer, and it is this charge that the Senate provision would reimburse.

This bi-partisan Senate provision is emblematic of the dangers of government involvement in health care. If the provision survives consolidation with the House bill, the U.S. government would recognize and pay for prayer as medicine.

Christian Science is a religion whose adherents deny their children medical care for chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases. Certainly, these individuals are constitutionally free to practice their special brand of theological quackery, but denying children medical care and to risk sending them to early graves as a result should simply be criminal.

Or at least it was criminal until the 1970s and ’80s, when Christian Scientists successfully lobbied legislatures in 45 states to enact laws that protect parents who practice faith healing from prosecution for child abuse or neglect if they deny their children medical care, the The Wall Street Journal reported.
Children denied medical attention according to the tenets of Christian Science have died from diabetes, appendicitis, diphtheria, measles and many other preventable and treatable illnesses. Now, three senators would fund this theology and recognize it as medicine.

There is no absolute account of how many children have died as a result of Christian Science neglect, but a 1998 study in the journal Pediatrics reported that 172 children whose parents withheld medical treatment from them for religious reasons died between 1975 and 1995. Of these deaths, “140 fatalities were from conditions for which survival rates with medical care would have exceeded 90 percent” and only 43 of the 172 reported deaths were ever prosecuted.

Because Christian Scientists rarely report their children’s illness to doctors, hospitals or other authorities, these 172 documented deaths have to be understood as only a fraction of the number of children who have died as a result of not receiving medical treatment for religious reasons.

Not content to simply see state laws enacted that protect negligent parents from prosecution, lobbyists for the Church of Christ, Scientist approached universal health care laws as a way to further legitimize this theology and even have it funded by the state.

When Massachusetts enacted a statewide universal health care program in 2006, Christian Scientists successfully lobbied to include a provision in the bill that allowed people to opt-out of the plan for religious reasons. The Church lobbyists then secured reimbursements for faith healing similar to the provision in the current Senate bill.

As a result, taxes in the state of Massachusetts are used to pay for faith healing and other “medical” programs offered by Christian Scientists.

Although the developments in Massachusetts are troubling, the implications of such provisions being applied at the federal level could be disastrous.

First, the expenditure of federal tax dollars on religious services constitutes a clear breach of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the very spirit of the doctrine of separation of church and state. These Constitutional concerns effectively scuttled the Christian Science provisions in the House health care bill and currently represent the most effective argument to defeat similar provisions in the Senate.

Second, if the provision remains in the bill and the bill is passed, faith healing would be federally elevated to the level of clinical medicine. This could grant Christian Scientists and other similar sects greater legal legitimacy and give them a stronger legal claim to control their children’s medical care in the case of a life-threatening illness.

This provision in the Senate health bill is an example of just how dangerous government involvement can be in health care when fringe interest groups are able to exert sufficient pressure on legislators in order to have their quackery recognized as medicine and funded by the state.

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Los Angeles Times - November 3, 2009

Healthcare provision seeks to embrace prayer treatments

A little-noticed measure would put Christian Science healing sessions on the same footing as clinical medicine. Critics say it violates the separation of church and state.

By Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger Reporting from Washington - Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist.

The measure would put Christian Science prayer treatments -- which substitute for or supplement medical treatments -- on the same footing as clinical medicine. While not mentioning the church by name, it would prohibit discrimination against "religious and spiritual healthcare."

It would have a minor effect on the overall cost of the bill -- Christian Science is a small church, and the prayer treatments can cost as little as $20 a day. But it has nevertheless stirred an intense controversy over the constitutional separation of church and state, and the possibility that other churches might seek reimbursements for so-called spiritual healing.

Phil Davis, a senior Christian Science Church official, said prayer treatment was an effective alternative to conventional healthcare.

"We are making the case for this, believing there is a connection between healthcare and spirituality," said Davis, who distributed 11,000 letters last week to Senate officials urging support for the measure.

"We think this is an important aspect of the solution, when you are talking about not only keeping the cost down, but finding effective healthcare," he said.

The provision would apply only to insurance policies offered on a proposed exchange where consumers could shop for plans that meet standards set by the government.

But critics say the measure could have a broader effect, conferring new status and medical legitimacy on practices that lie outside the realm of science.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that promotes separation of church and state, said the opportunity to receive payment for spiritual care could encourage other groups to seek similar status.

"This would be an absolute invitation to organize," Gaylor said.

The Christian Science Church, which was founded in Boston in 1879, has pushed throughout its history to secure official recognition for its paid prayer practitioners. Their job, as outlined by the church's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was to pray for healing and charge for treatment at rates similar to those of medical doctors.

In the early 20th century, the church sought recognition from state regulators so the practitioners would not be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. Criminal courts have convicted Christian Scientists in cases where children have died after visiting prayer healers instead of receiving conventional medical care. The church says no such incidents have occurred for two decades.

About 90 years ago, private insurance companies began paying for Christian Science prayer treatments, but more recently, managed-care insurers declined reimbursements, insisting on paying for care that produced proven medical results.

The Internal Revenue Service allows the cost of the prayer sessions to be counted among itemized medical expenses for income tax purposes -- one of the only religious treatments explicitly identified as deductible by the IRS. Some federal medical insurance programs, including those for military families, also reimburse for prayer treatment.

The spiritual healing provision was introduced in the House by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose district includes a Christian Science school, Principia College.

Two committees in the House voted to include the measure in their versions of the overhaul, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) stripped it from the consolidated House bill last week after a few members argued it was unconstitutional.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, said the provision raised serious questions about government support of religion.

"I think when Congress mandates that health companies provide coverage for prayer, it has the effect of the government advancing religion," he said.

The legal issue, however, may not be cut and dried.

Michael McConnell, who heads the Stanford University Constitutional Law Center, said that "as long as patients are the ones who choose, and religious choices are given no legal preference or advantage, the proposals would appear to be consistent with constitutional standards."

In the Senate, the provision is included in a version of the bill drafted by the health committee. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is considering whether to include it in the consolidated bill he will send to the Senate floor.

Kerry's spokeswoman, Whitney Smith, disputed that insurers would be forced to cover prayer. Instead, she said, "the amendment would prevent insurers from discriminating against benefits that qualify as spiritual care if the care is recognized by the IRS as a legitimate medical expense. Plans are free to impose standards on spiritual and medical care as long as both are treated equally. It does not mandate that plans provide spiritual care."

Hatch said, "I offered this amendment because I believe that everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, should have access to healthcare."

But Dr. Norman Fost, a pediatrician and medical ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, said the measure went against the goal of reducing healthcare costs by improving evidence-based medical practices.

"They want a special exception for people who use unproved treatments, and they also want to get paid for it," he said. "They want people who use prayer to have it just automatically accepted as a legitimate therapy."

Christian Science leaders say many critics misunderstand their faith. Christian Scientists do not reject medical care, church leaders said. Instead, they promote spiritual healing and do not interfere with decisions about whether to pursue medical help.

Davis has been trained as a practitioner and still occasionally treats the sick.

"We'll talk to them about their relationship to God," he said. "We'll talk to them about citations or biblical passages they might study. We refer to it as treatment. It's an affirmation of their relationship with God, and the understanding that comes from their prayer, of their relationship with God."

During the day, Davis may see multiple patients and pray for them at different moments. He charges them $20 to $40 for the day, saying, "I think that it would be considered modest by any standard."

The church, which has seen a steady decline in adherents, does not reveal membership numbers. It claims between 1,700 and 1,800 congregations in more than 60 countries.

Davis said the church consulted legal experts to develop legislation that was constitutional and consonant with the overall goals of healthcare reform. It also hired a major Washington law firm, Mayer Brown, to lobby for the provision.

"We think this is an important aspect of the solution," Davis said, arguing that Christian Scientists are leading the fight for all who believe in spiritual healing. "We don't believe there should be hurdles between an individual and spiritual treatment that could be the most important solution to healthcare in this country."

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  1. I would like to respond to some of the issues raised in this post and will try and be brief. The biggest misconception is that Christian Scientists "deny" their children medical care. For five generations my family has relied on prayer for healing and my parents, and myself as a parent could have chosen medical methods at any time; however, prayer has always proven effective and practical.
    Yes, children have died but there is no proof that they would have done better under medical care, and this can be verified by reading online the various Kaiser Foundation Newsletters who readily admit that thousands die every year under medical care. Is it just possible that some of those might have been saved under spiritual care?
    It is sad and regrettable when anyone dies and all of us are working to alleviate suffering and pain - Christian Scientists and others have chosen another method, the method proved viable and effective by Christ Jesus.
    Prayer is not a "religious service". Christian Science practitioners work one-on-one with those who call them for help and they have the same relationship with their patients as do doctors, the same ethical standards and the same confidentiality agreement. Their conversations are not about the church and there is no proselytizing or promoting of the church or religion - the government would not be promoting a religion. Anyone can call for help, they do not have to be a Christian Scientist.
    If health care is mandated those relying on spiritual care would like to have the same laws apply to them so that all would be included in the reform of the health care system.

  2. Kathy, you really should have read those two articles more closely before posting your comment because it appears as if you are intentionally trying to mislead and misinform readers in order to promote your silly but dangerous beliefs. You clearly claim that Christian Science practitioners "have the same relationship with their patients as do doctors" and that "[t]heir conversations are not about the church and there is no proselytizing or promoting of the church or religion.

    However, here's what Phil Davis, a senior Christian Science Church official who has been trained as a practitioner and still occasionally treats the sick said in the LA Times article above:

    "We'll talk to them about their relationship to God," he said. "We'll talk to them about citations or biblical passages they might study. We refer to it as treatment. It's an affirmation of their relationship with God, and the understanding that comes from their prayer, of their relationship with God."

    That is not what legitimate and ethical medical doctors do, treating health problems with scripture, and that is the direct opposite of what you claim.

  3. Hi Perry,

    What Phil Davis said is correct however that is what prayer treatment is, but it doesn't promote the church. Medical doctors treat with medicine. My comment was that the relationship is the same as far as privacy and ethics, not that that treatment is the same. Hope that is clearer.

  4. In my reply to Kathy I referred to her silly but dangerous beliefs. I just came across this recent example of how dangerous Christian Science beliefs are, but there are many many more. Although this story involves an 86 year old woman rather than a child, she had dementia and was therefore as vulnerable and dependent on others for care as a child. The following excerpts are from an article in today's Las Vegas Journal Review at:


    During an emotional and tearful sentencing hearing, both defendants said they loved Rosemary Burt, never intended to harm her and believed they were honoring her wish to die at home with no modern medical treatment because she was a Christian Scientist.

    Jacqueline Burt told Judge Michael Villani that her mother had told her she was not going to walk anymore and was bed ridden. The dying woman fought all types of care, often screaming in pain and fighting during efforts to turn her to prevent ulcers. She had to be hand-fed, and her mother refused most food, accepting only items such as cinnamon bread softened in milk and cherry milk shakes.