Medicine Trumps Religious Beliefs, Courts Say but Ohio Case Involving Amish Exposes Gray Area

Article excerpt

When the religious beliefs of parents conflict with the medical needs of the child, medical care trumps religion.

In Pennsylvania, and most other states, the law allows health and government officials to get court approval to provide medical care to save a child's life over the parents' religious objections.

But in Akron, Ohio, where Amish parents removed their 10-year- old daughter from the hospital to avoid further chemotherapy, the issue enters a legal gray area.

"I think this is a more heartrending question," said Wes Oliver, associate professor of law and director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Duquesne Law School. "Do you require parents to take extraordinary measures to give a child a percentage chance of survival, or do you leave that decision for the parents?"

In the Amish case, the parents took their daughter to the hospital in May for chemotherapy before removing her from treatment in June.

The girl is diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma that medical officials say is curable. The Leukemia Research Foundation says there's a first-year survival rate of 81 percent for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, with a five-year survival rate of 67 percent and 10-year survival rate of 56 percent.

"What's interesting in this case is, the one reason people don't go through chemotherapy involves the cost-benefit analysis. If the rationale is that the child undergo chemotherapy with no significant chance of a cure, then this is not a religious objection. If it were a religious objection, the parents would never have sought treatment for the child in the first place," he said.

Withholding medical care for religious reasons has caused the death of more than 60 children nationwide since the 1970s, the Massachusetts Citizens for Children reports, including one 1981 Pittsburgh case, two 1991 cases in Altoona and 13 cases in the Philadelphia area.

In April, a second child of Philadelphia parents who believe in faith healing died from pneumonia after they refused to seek medical help. They now face murder charges.

The Massachusetts website lists no cases involving the Amish. The issue more commonly involves members of Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, the Faith Tabernacle, the Church of the First Born, the Faith Assembly and the End Time Ministries.

When medical or government officials become aware of seriously ill children whose parents are withholding medical care, the law allows them to intercede to prevent the child's death. Parents are entitled to their religious beliefs until they endanger their children.

"Religion always loses that battle," Mr. Oliver said. "It is easy for us as a society to draw the line because most people don't share those religious views of being torn between religious views and saving lives."

Parents typically face involuntary manslaughter charges when the lack of medical care leads to a child's death.

But the Akron case is murkier. The Amish parents argued that chemotherapy was hurting, not helping their daughter, who was suffering great discomfort from the treatment. …