A Wisconsin mother who believes in “divine healing” was convicted Friday of reckless homicide for allowing her 11-year-old daughter Madeline to die of untreated diabetes by praying for her instead of seeking medical treatment. She awaits sentencing.
Meanwhile, a Minnesota mother and her cancer-stricken 13-year-old son Daniel have gone into hiding, trying to evade court-ordered chemotherapy which the boy says conflicts with his stated preference for “natural healing” methods favored by a Missouri-based religious group. (UPDATE: Colleen and Daniel Hauser returned to their Minnesota home early Monday.)
How far should a mother go to protect her child’s religious beliefs, or her own? Does any parent have a right to put a child’s health at risk for religious convictions? Does any child have that right? Should the government intervene in those cases?
These two mothers are clear in their convictions.
Neumann, the Wisconsin woman on trial, said in a videotaped interview played Wednesday at her trial that the Lord was going to take care of her daughter and all she needed was prayer. “It did scare me with her being cold,” Neumann said. “I just believed the Lord is going to heal her. I never thought she was close to death . . . “I just felt that, you know, my faith was being tested. I never went through an experience like that before in my life and I just thought, man, this is the ultimate test. We just started praying and praying and praying over her.”
Colleen Hauser, the Minnesota mom, is facing felony arrest for fleeing the state with her son after a judge found Daniel Hauser has been “medically neglected” by his parents and needed the state’s protection. In court, Hauser testified that she was trying to “starve” his cancer with a diet and that their belief in the Nemenhah principle of “do no harm” leads her to believe that chemotherapy is poison, contrary to God’s intention for the natural healing of disease.
“All of these recent cases are complex because they require the legal system to reconcile a variety of interests,” Shawn Francis Peters, religion teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law,” wrote in an On Faith guest column last year.
“Treasuring religious liberty, most Americans recoil at infringements on the faith-based practices that help to define our religious lives. And, too, we generally believe that parents should have wide latitude in directing the upbringing of their children. But those sentiments are challenged when the physical and emotional welfare of children – the most vulnerable members of our society – is at risk.”
The U.S. Supreme Court seems clear about how these conflicts should be resolved. As Georgetown/On Faith blogger and professor Michael Kessler explains elsewhere on this site, U.S. law clearly allows adults to make similar religious-based decisions for themselves — but not for their children. Kessler quotes the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling in Prince v. Massachusetts:
“The right to practice religion freely does not include the right to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill-health or death . . . Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”
But as Kessler points out, many states have exemptions for religious grounds from child abuse statutes. In those states, a parent can’t be charged with neglect for withholding medical treatment. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups have criticized of these laws.
As a parent and person of faith, I can’t imagine choosing to put my own religious beliefs ahead of my child’s physical health and safety. I surely can’t imagine allowing a young teenager to make that call. If a parent won’t protect a child, someone has to step in and do it, right?
These children needed medical attention, not spiritual hocus pocus. Pray for your children and with your children. Encourage them to believe in the power of faith. But don’t deny them the miraculous and healing powers of modern medicine.
UPDATE: The Neumanns were sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years probation.