Letting Children Die for the Faith

By Swan, Rita | Free Inquiry, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Letting Children Die for the Faith


Swan, Rita, Free Inquiry


What kind of society would we have if everyone were allowed to violate laws that offended his or her religious beliefs? Most people would see that as anarchy. Children, however, die because of their parents' religious beliefs about medical care, and the response of public officials is generally muted.

When pediatrician Seth Asser and I studied these deaths, we found that, of 172 U.S. children who died between 1975 and 1995 after their parents withheld medical care on religious grounds, 140 fatalities were from conditions for which survival rates with medical care would have exceeded 90%.(1) We believe that the cases in our files were only the minor fraction of the actual number of deaths. Only 43 of 172 deaths were prosecuted. In many cases public officials dismissed these deaths as due to natural causes.

Shortly after our research was published, the Oregonian reported that the Followers of Christ Church in Clackamas County lets children die without medical care. The congregation has its own cemetery and has buried 78 children there since 1955.

Surely these are astronomical death rates in a congregation with an estimated 1,200 members. Yet public officials remained indifferent for decades. In more than 50 cases, the state either did not bother to determine the cause of the children's deaths or the records have been lost. Since 1987, the medical examiner has performed autopsies and brought cases to the district attorney's office. The prosecutor, however, declined to file charges, claiming that the parents had a constitutional right to withhold lifesaving care from their children.

In the past year Followers children without medical care have died of a renal infection, a strangulated hernia, and diabetes. New Clackamas County District Attorney Terry Gustafson wants to file charges, but has concluded that Oregon laws providing religious immunity to charges of homicide by abuse or neglect and manslaughter, enacted in 1995 and 1997, prevent her from doing so.

An Idaho affiliate of the Followers has had 12 children die since 1980. None of these 90 children was known to Seth and me when we did our research for Pediatrics.

The United States has a vast array of religious exemption laws that allow parents to deprive children of health care. These include religious exemptions from criminal charges, civil abuse and neglect charges, immunizations, physical examinations, prophylactic eyedrops, metabolic testing of newborns, lead poison screening, and instruction about disease.

These exemptions have brought very serious harm to children. Many outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have occurred in groups claiming religious exemptions from immunizations. Prophylactic eyedrops prevent blindness. Metabolic testing detects disorders that cause mental retardation if left untreated.

States with a religious defense to the most serious crimes against children include Iowa and Ohio (a religious defense to manslaughter); Delaware and West Virginia (religious defenses to murder of a child); Arkansas (religious defense to capital murder); and Oregon (religious defenses to homicide by abuse or neglect, manslaughter, criminal mistreatment, and nonsupport). Oregon laws extend religious immunity beyond medical neglect. A parent may be beating or torturing a child, but if he or she can show that the child was prayed for, criminal charges must be dismissed.

In 1996 the first religious exemption allowing parents to withhold medical care was placed in federal law. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requires states in the federal grant program to include failure to provide medical care in their definitions of child neglect, but also states: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as establishing a Federal requirement that a parent or legal guardian provide a child any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or legal guardian. …

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