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
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
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
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
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
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
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.