Appellate Action Continues in Spiritual-Healing Cases Rulings Differ on Whether `Due Process' Was Ignored

By Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 1990 | Go to article overview

Appellate Action Continues in Spiritual-Healing Cases Rulings Differ on Whether `Due Process' Was Ignored


Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 criminal.

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, Ian Lundman.

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. …

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