A hemophilic boy in Pennsylvania bleeds to death over a period of two days from a small cut on his foot. An Indiana girl dies after a malignant tumor sprouts from her skull and grows so enormous that it’s nearly the size of her head. A boy in Massachusetts succumbs to a bowel obstruction. (His cries of pain are so loud that neighbors are forced to shut their windows to block out the sound.)
None of these children benefit from the readily-available medical treatments that might save their lives, or at least mitigate their suffering. Because the tenets of their parents’ religious faiths mandate it, their ailments are treated by prayer rather than medical science. The results are tragic.
It is difficult to determine precisely how many children in the United States lose their lives every year as the result of the phenomenon that has come to be known as religion-based medical neglect. A landmark study published in the journal Pediatrics uncovered more than 150 reported fatalities over a 10-year period – a tally that one of the study’s authors later said represented only “the tip of the iceberg” of a surprisingly pervasive problem. Assessing whether forms of religion-related child abuse pose a greater risk to children than more widely publicized threats, such as ritual satanic abuse, a wide-ranging study funded by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect concluded that “there are more children actually being abused in the name of God than in the name of Satan.”
Since the late nineteenth century, hundreds of such instances of abuse have resulted in tangled criminal litigation. The parents charged in these cases – many of them Christian Scientists or members of small Christian churches that ground their doctrines in narrowly literal interpretations of the Bible – often have argued that the First Amendment safeguards their decision to adhere to their faiths’ religious traditions and treat their ailing children solely by spiritual means. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have balked at the notion that constitutional protections for religious liberty provide an absolute bar to state regulation of religious conduct, particularly when that behavior puts the safety of children at risk. Their task often has been complicated, however, by murky state manslaughter and abuse statutes that appear to provide exemptions for religious healing practices.
Arguing that they were “Christians first, citizens afterward,” a prominent Christian spiritual healer once urged his followers to disregard secular laws that might compel them to forsake their religious beliefs regarding healing. Such is the dilemma that confronts parents who choose to treat their sick or injured children with prayer instead of medicine. Not only must they safeguard the health of their sons and daughters; they also must try to reconcile their devotion to God with their duties as citizens in a society that boasts a long and sometimes checkered history of regulating uncommon religious conduct.
Defining these obligations through the enforcement of secular laws – especially ones that are constitutionally fuzzy – can be a complicated business. Moreover, there is no guarantee that it will deter devout and stubborn parents from engaging in religious practices that endanger the health of their children. But the alternative – simply ignoring the suffering of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our nation’s churches – seems unconscionable.
Shawn Francis Peters’ latest book, “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law,” was published in October by Oxford University Press. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.