When Faith Fails Children

By Swan, Rita | The Humanist, November 2000 | Go to article overview

When Faith Fails Children


Swan, Rita, The Humanist


Religion Based Neglect: Pervasive, Deadly ... and Legal?

My husband Douglas and I were devout, lifelong Christian Scientists until 1977 when we lost our only son Matthew as a result of our religious beliefs regarding medical care. It's hard for most people to understand this. It's hard for many to grasp how parents could watch a beloved child suffer, yet not call a doctor. I need to begin, therefore, by describing the pressures involved.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist, founded in the late nineteenth century by Mary Baker Eddy, teaches that all disease is caused by sin. As little Matthew lay helpless with a raging fever, his body and bedding soaked with perspiration, the Christian Science practitioners told us that our negative feelings were making our baby sick. Our doubts, fears, lack of gratitude to them, and problems with relatives were the sins causing Matthew's illness.

Christian Science theology had trained us to believe that physicians don't really heal--at best, they only relieve symptoms; the underlying cause of the disease remains a moral problem that God alone can solve. Furthermore, this church doesn't allow its practitioners to give spiritual treatments to those who voluntarily go to a physician. Such a rule, as contrasted with the teachings of most other religious denominations, instructs that God and a doctor are mutually exclusive alternatives.

The Christian Science church also opposes medical diagnosis as much as it does medical treatment. Because of this, my husband and I had no way of acquiring rational information about Matthew's illness without breaking church rules. We wanted relief for our baby and considered taking him to a doctor, but we were terrified that the doctor wouldn't be able to treat the disease, which was a mystery to us, and then we'd have no way to resume the Christian Science healing. Thus, if we made the wrong decision, we could find ourselves bereft of help from both medical science and God.

On the twelfth day of his illness, however, a path of action seemed to open for us. The practitioner told us that Matthew might have a broken bone and that the Christian Science church does allow members to go to doctors to have bones set. Immediately we took Matthew to a hospital. As I walked in with our nearly dead baby in my arms, I asked the staff to check him for only the broken bone. But later, when we phoned our practitioner from the hospital, expecting her to continue praying for Matthew, she indignantly rejected us, saying that she had "seen all along" we were lacking in faith.

Our baby was diagnosed with h-flu meningitis, which has been routinely treated with antibiotics since the 1940s and is vaccine-preventable today. The doctors explained to us how the disease had caused the symptoms we had seen. That's when we realized that the very things the Christian Science practitioners had insisted were signs the religious treatments were working were, in fact, signs of impending disaster. (For example, one practitioner, who observed Matthew's convulsions, said he might be "gritting his teeth" because he was "planning some great achievement.")

Matthew lived a week longer in intensive care on a respirator and then died. Immediately afterwards, my husband and I left the Christian Science church.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sadly, our experience isn't unique. There have been far too many other children who have suffered and died under similar circumstances. This is why my husband and I founded Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD), a national membership organization that promotes the rights of children to medical care and opposes religion-related abuse and neglect of children. And this is why we think it is important to share not only our own story but those of other parents and their children.

SHAUNTAY WALKER, age four, died of meningitis in Sacramento, California, in 1984. She was home sick from nursery school for seventeen days but the school staff didn't report the matter to Child Protection Services. …

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