Who Killed Neil Beagley?

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NEIL BEAGLEY DIED LAST JUNE in Oregon. He had a urinary tract blockage that could have been corrected by a fairly simple catheterization. It wasn't corrected though, because Nell's parents had taught him that God, not man, should cure disease if it is to be cured at all. So Nell died of heart failure as urea poisoned his organs. He was sixteen years old. (In October his parents turned themselves in to face charges of criminally negligent homicide. Their trial is scheduled for June 23.)

Nell's cousin, Ava Worthington, also died in Oregon, just a few months before he did. Ava had bronchial pneumonia, which her parents refused to treat with medication. They, along with Neil and his family, are members of the Followers of Christ Church. They also were charged in her death and face trial. Ava was fifteen months old.

Shortly before Christmas 2007, Dennis Lindberg died of leukemia in Washington State. Treating leukemia is more complicated than treating bronchial pneumonia, but a blood transfusion would at least have extended his life, giving doctors the opportunity to try some other things to give Dennis a fighting chance. Dennis was raised by his aunt, though, who as a Jehovah's Witness taught him the evil of worldly medical treatment. Dennis was fourteen years old.

We know a few more details about Dennis because the state intervened to try to save his life. The law in the United States regards people who are fourteen years of age as incapable of making decisions like electing a Republican or a Democrat, signing an enforceable contract, or choosing a spouse--with good reason, as 3 parents of teenagers can attest. Yet Dennis was found to be wise enough to decide whether his own life should be terminated or not. This conclusion was reached not by a hospital administrator looking to clear a bed, but by a Washington State Superior Court judge, who allowed Dennis to end his own life because he didn't want to interfere with the young man's religious convictions.

If a fourteen-year-old walks into court and seeks permission to kill himself because he has acne and his dream girl gave him the brush-off, the answer would be an abrupt no. But the court found that religion makes it all okay. So did the judge kill Dennis? To some extent, yes; it's hard to imagine anyone with an ounce of sense allowing a fourteen-year-old to make a decision like this. But the judge wasn't making up the rules; his decision was based on sound precedent, ultimately leading back to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Had he ruled the other way, it's likely the decision would have been stayed and appealed--which would have produced exactly the same result, since Dennis died the day after the decision was announced.

Alternatively, we could blame his aunt for Dennis's death, with some justification. But she didn't dream up the ideas she imposed on Dennis herself. They all came from somewhere, and their ultimate source lies in early (and not so early) Christian teaching on medicine.

Before the Christians took over Europe, Greeks and Romans were proceeding apace to develop the science of medicine. As is well documented in Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, the early Christian fathers put the kibosh on all that, insisting instead that disease is either the punishment of God or the work of demons. The early Christian scholar Origen wrote: "It is demons which produce famine, unfruitfulness, corruptions of the air, pestilences; they hover concealed in clouds in the lower atmosphere, and are attracted by the blood and incense which the heathen offer to them as gods. According to Augustine of Hippo, "All diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to these demons; chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea, even the guiltless, newborn infants" (Like little Ava Worthington.) Nilus the Elder of Sinai and Gregory of Tours stressed the sinfulness of resorting to medicine instead of trusting to the intercession of saints. …