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Letting Children Die for the Faith

by Rita Swan

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.

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.” Thus, the federal government allows one class of children to be deprived of protections it offers to others.

Why does a country that prides itself on fairness allow this discrimination against children? The short answer is that the Christian Science Church, which does virtually all the lobbying for these exemptions, has money and power. Among the lawyers the church has retained to fight its battles are Ken Starr, Warren Christopher, and Michael McConnell. The church maintains a salaried lobbyist in every state and besieges legislators with letters, calls, and visits from church members.

A recent scholarly journal article estimates U.S. membership in the Christian Science church at 106,000, predominantly elderly members and says Christian Science may die out within a generation.2 Yet legislators and other public officials look upon the church as a towering giant to whom they must pay obeisance.

A fuller explanation for the church’s success lies in the low status of children in American culture. Children have neither the franchise nor financial power with which to influence the political process. Child welfare organizations are not as alert and energetic as they should be on public policy.

The very idea of children having rights is threatening to many Americans. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by 191 nations. Only the United States and Somalia have not. The United States has well-organized, vocal opponents who charge that the treaty threatens family structure and parental rights.

Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village was attacked by some members of the Christian Right for claiming that society has an interest and a role in the well-being of children. For them children are the property of their parents.

The mass media have little interest in religious exemption laws. A few years ago the New York Times ran a sizable article about the Christian Science Church reissuing its textbook, a topic that cannot possibly be considered news, but was promoted by the church’s public relations firm. By contrast, the Times has never, to my knowledge, published an article about religious exemptions from health care for children. With the press unwilling to devote attention to state or federal exemption legislation, politicians are not penalized for enacting more exemptions nor credited  for standing up to the Christian Science church and opposing them.

Too many public officials believe that the First Amendment gives parents the right to withhold medical care from children as a religious practice. As Lake City, Florida Mayor Gerald Witt said of local faith-related deaths, “It may be necessary for some babies to die to maintain our religious freedoms. It may be the price we have to pay; everything has a price.”

Courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment does not include a right to deprive children of medical care, but legislators nevertheless continue  to give parents such rights by statute. Some argue that parents motivated by religion do not intend for the child to be hurt and therefore should have an exemption from child abuse and neglect charges. But nearly all parents love their children and believe they are acting in their children’s best interest. It takes more than good intentions to nurture and protect a child.

The limits of religious freedom would not be hard to understand if adult interests were being compromised. No legislature has enacted religious defenses to crimes against adults.

The bottom line is that children are helpless and that parents have custody of them. Society must require parents to provide children with the necessities of life regardless of their religious beliefs. 


1. Seth Asser and Rita Swan, “Child Fatalities from Religion-motivated Medical Neglect,” Pediatrics 101 (April 1998): 625–29.

2. Rodney Stark, “The Rise and Fall of Christian Science,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 13(1998):189–214.

Rita Swan heads Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (http://www.childrenshealthcare.org). A former Christian Scientist, she left the church when her toddler, Matthew, died of untreated meningitis.

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