Faith Healing in the WSJ

The WSJ brings us news of increasing opposition to laws that would protect faith healing. Or as I call it, negligence. As usual it has required the death of innocents before people will come to grips with common sense.

The recent death from untreated diabetes of an 11-year-old Wisconsin girl has invigorated opposition to obscure laws in many states that let parents rely on prayer, rather than medicine, to heal sick children.

Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston, Wis., are facing charges of second-degree reckless homicide after their child, Madeline Kara Neumann, died on Easter after slipping into a coma. The death, likely preventable with insulin, has renewed calls for Wisconsin and dozens of other states to strike laws that protect parents who choose prayer alone in lieu of medical treatment.

I’ll take issue here. “Likely preventable with insulin” should actually be, “completely and totally, unquestionably, preventable with insulin.” In fact for type I diabetics, and critically in diabetic ketoacidosis, the choice really is insulin or death, with no middle ground. You need insulin to live. But I digress.

Lawyers nationwide say they are eager to see if the Neumann case sparks more changes in state laws. It raises a “national discourse as to whether children can be medically neglected legally,” says Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who writes about children’s rights. In another recent case, a 15-month-old child in Oregon died in March from a form of pneumonia and a blood infection after her parents opted to try to heal her with prayer. Oregon law provides no defense for parents charged with causing the death of a child through neglect or maltreatment, and the couple has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.

There’s been a small, steady pushback against state provisions protecting spiritual healing. A Massachusetts bill that would have protected parents who used prayer in lieu of medical treatment stalled in committee last year, despite the measure’s broad sponsorship by 33 lawmakers.

In Maryland, lawmakers in 2005 repealed part of a law that had protected parents from losing custody if they withheld medical treatment because of religious belief. And in Maine that year, legislators amended several laws regarding religious treatment, and repealed part of its family law that stated that children couldn’t automatically be considered abused solely because they were treated “by spiritual means by an accredited practitioner.” Evert Fowle, the district attorney in Augusta, Maine, said the amendments would now allow him to bring charges against guardians should a child be harmed after being treated with prayer alone.

And here is the question for my readers, although to me it isn’t much of a question at all. Do parents have a duty to their children to protect their health using the best information available? Or does freedom of choice dictate the ability of parents to decide whether their children can live or die based upon unethical human experimentation with prayer or quack therapies? Because that’s what you call it when you take an unproven modality and try it out on someone to see if they get better – experimentation. Did I load that question heavily enough?

More below the fold:

I have a new group of heroes – Legal Duty Inc.

In all, 45 states offer some legal accommodations in child-protection laws for parents who use spiritual healing, according to the Christian Science church. The laws vary widely, with some states protecting parents or guardians from felony abuse or murder prosecutions, while others exempt prayer practice only in misdemeanor cases, according to Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty Inc., a nonprofit group based in Sioux City, Iowa, that opposes such laws.

Wisconsin has three statutes providing religious healing exceptions: one in the child-abuse laws, one in the laws concerning crimes against children, and one that bars the state from forcing medical care on someone who chooses Christian Science prayer. The state’s child-abuse laws were amended in 1987 to say: “A person is not guilty of an offense … solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing.” The wording was requested by the local Christian Science government-relations office, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a state agency.

A 1998 study in the journal Pediatrics, by Rita Swan, president of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, and Seth Asser, a Rhode Island pediatrician, reported that 172 children died with no medical care because of religious reasons in the two decades after states began exempting faith healing. Of those, 140 children had a greater than 90% chance of survival if they had been treated medically, the researchers found. “Some of the religious defenses to felonies are a chilling betrayal of children,” says Ms. Swan, a former Christian Scientist who lost a child to spinal meningitis in 1977 after initially relying on church practitioners before finally seeking medical help.

That’s what’s so sad about these cases. With kids, they don’t have a choice. They can’t consent to be born to a crazy parent versus a normal parent, and they don’t have the capacity to accept or reject medical decisions based on personal belief. Some basic protections are at work to prevent children from being made absolute chattel of their parents, and the requirement that health care be provided for when they are sick is critical. But why do we allow this loophole? Why do we say, if you’re religious, it’s ok to kill your child with neglect? It’s frankly insane in my opinion. On the one hand we have modalities that will save lives a great deal of the time. In some of these cases, all of the time. On the other you have prayer. Essentially doing nothing and hoping for the best.

Oh wait. It’s worse than doing nothing. It’s doing nothing, and apparently charging insurance companies for the service:

Church lobbyists are now asking that the state allow insurance plans to reimburse prayer practitioners, who can charge $20 to $50 for a day’s worth of prayer, says Wanda Jane Warmack, the church’s legislative manager.

I know something is wrong in the world when I start feeling sympathetic for insurance companies.