When Faith Kills; Christian Healing V. Scientific Medicine

By Krause, Kenneth W. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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When Faith Kills; Christian Healing V. Scientific Medicine

Krause, Kenneth W., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.

--Dennis and Lorie Nixon's dedication to their 16-year-old daughter, Shannon, on her headstone

ACTUALLY, THE NIXONS OF ALTOONA, Pennsylvania lost two children in the early 1990s. When their younger son, Clayton, fell victim to a common ear infection and pleaded to his parents to make the pain stop, the Nixons chose to address the problem with prayer rather than medical science, in keeping with their particular Christian faith. Clayton's tiny body eventually succumbed to extreme dehydration and malnutrition and, sadly, he never recovered.

Blair County District Attorney, William Haberstroh, prosecuted Dennis and Lorie on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. After a plea of no contest, the Nixons were sentenced to probation. When asked what he hoped to achieve, Haberstroh answered, "What I want to do is not change their belief, but change their conduct." The problem, however, is that as people believe, so shall they behave.

So maybe it should have come as no surprise that, when Clayton's older sister took ill, the Nixon family elected once again to forego scientific medicine in favor of prayer and anointment with oil, consistent with scriptural teachings. Shannon's mood improved at one point, so her parents praised God for His perceived mercy. But the child's condition quickly worsened and, following another round of intense prayer, Shannon died at the very end of spring, 1995.

According to the autopsy, Shannon had suffered from diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which made her blood more acidic than its surrounding tissues. Although the disease is technically incurable, it can be successfully treated with regular insulin injections typically costing less than one dollar each. Without the shots, medical experts agree, victims of DKA will likely perish. Thus, the Nixons' decision to treat their daughter with prayer alone sealed her tragic fate. "They sacrificed this little girl for their religious beliefs," Haberstroh concluded after filing a fresh set of criminal charges.

I decided to delve further into the facts of these unfortunate cases when I read about an eerily similar situation in my home state of Wisconsin. By March 26, 2008, the Associated Press had begun to publish reports concerning a little Weston girl--eleven year-old Madeline Neumann--who had been obviously sick for approximately thirty days. Instead of seeking medical care, her parents, Leilani and Dale, chose to pray for Madeline's recovery. She died from DKA on March 23, Easter Sunday. Eventually, the Neumanns were charged with second-degree reckless homicide. But Marathon County District Attorney, Jill Falstad, decided she could not charge them with child abuse because section 948 of the Wisconsin statutes provides a criminal exemption from that crime for religious parents who choose to treat their afflicted children with nothing but prayer.

The local newspapers referenced a pending case in Oregon as well, where Carl and Raylene Worthington have been charged with manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. Their 15-month-old daughter, Ava, became ill with pneumonia and a blood infection, both of which could have been treated effectively with antibiotics. Medical science was again rejected by parents in favor of prayer and, again, on March 2, an innocent child died.

I had no idea how frequently these cases occurred across America--or how bizarre and horrifying the details could be--until I read about literally hundreds of them in a newly published history of this collective national disaster, When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law (Oxford, 2008), written by Shawn Francis Peters, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Typical offenders, Peters explains, are "intensely religious parents whose lives revolve around the doctrines and practices of small, close-knit Christian churches that ground their doctrines in narrowly literal interpretations of the Bible.

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