STATE courts continue to issue conflicting decisions on whether
parents relying on spiritual healing instead of medicine for a child
can be criminally prosecuted in cases when the child dies.
At issue are so-called "spiritual-healing provisions" in state
laws dealing with children's welfare. Such laws usually provide that
parents relying in good faith solely on spiritual healing for
children shall not be held neglectful or abusive. Most of these laws
were sought by members of the Christian Science Church, who for more
than 100 years have practiced a form of healing by prayer that they
say has given results at least as good as those of medicine.
Despite such laws, however, local prosecutors in the late 1980s
have indicted several Christian Scientist parents for child neglect
or manslaughter when children have died. In most of the cases, the
parents have argued that the spiritual-healing provisions in state
laws provide a legal sanction for their choice of treatment.
Courts in some states have held that spiritual-healing provisions
in the law preclude prosecution or at least provide a basis for
defense. But judges in other states have refused to recognize them.
Defense lawyers in these latter cases say this raises constitutional
questions of due process; that is, the right of a defendant to know
beforehand that the state considers a certain course of action to be
The best-known case is that of Ginger and David Twitchell, who
were convicted in July of manslaughter here in Boston. Their
2-1/2-year-old son, Robyn, died in 1986 of what was later diagnosed
as a bowel obstruction caused by a birth defect. In that case, the
trial court judge refused to inform the jury that a
spiritual-healing provision exists in state law. Lawyers for the
Twitchells have filed a motion for a new trial and have also filed a
notice of appeal. The other six cases have resulted in a mixture of
acquittals, convictions, and dismissals of charges.
The list of contradictory decisions lengthened recently with
rulings by appeals courts in Minnesota and Florida. On Sept. 28, the
Florida Second District Court of Appeals upheld the 1989 conviction
of William and Christine Hermanson for felony child abuse and
third-degree murder in the death of their daughter, Amy, in 1986.
But the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Oct. 16 upheld on due-process
grounds a trial court's dismissal of manslaughter charges against
Kathleen and William McKown in the 1989 death of Mrs. McKown's son,
In the Florida appeal, attorneys for the Hermansons argued that
the spiritual-healing provision in the child-abuse law sanctioned
their choice of treatment. But the appellate court held that the
trial judge erred in allowing the Hermansons to construct a defense
on the basis of the spiritual-healing provision. It ruled that the
law applied only to reporting and investigating child abuse and not
to criminal penalties.
The court also rejected the Hermanson's due-process assertion
that Florida law does not tell parents relying on spiritual healing
exactly how serious a child's condition must be before they must
seek medical treatment instead. …