Oregon: On the verge of stripping legal protection based on religion from parents who choose prayer instead of medicine

Over the years, I’ve said it many times. Competent adults have the right (or should have the right) to choose or refuse any medical treatment they wish for any reason. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the reason might be. If a competent adult believes that magic water (i.e., homeopathy) can cure him of cancer, we can try to persuade him that such a view is at odds with reality, but in the end personal autonomy and the right to self-determination mean that there will be a few people who will refuse effective medication in favor of quackery. A major force in motivating people to choose unscientific medical treatments is all too often religion. For instance, there’s the nonsense that is Scientology castigating psychiatry and claiming that a device that looks as though it were constructed from leftover bits and pieces from the dumpster behind the local Radio Shack can diagnose all sorts of things about your personality and health. Then there are faith healers like John of God, Issam Nemeth, or Benny Hinn.

Most vulnerable of all to faith healing quackery are children. Over the years, I’ve been enormously depressed to record and comment on the deaths of children who had medical care withheld by their parents in favor of prayer because the parents were fervently convinced that prayer can heal. Madeline Neumann, for instance, died a miserable death from untreated diabetic ketoacidosis because her parents believed that the power of prayer would heal her. Madeline’s was an utterly pointless death. Even up to very close to the end, doctors could have saved her with intravenous hydration, correction of her electrolyte disturbances, and, of course, insulin to bring her blood glucose under control. These same parents ignored the desperate entreaties of friends and neighors to take Madeline to the hospital as her health rapidly declined, proclaiming Madeline’s illness a “test of faith” for them. Traditionally, the law has stated that adults can refuse treatment for any reason. In essence, adults are free to let themselves suffer and die, but they are not free to subject their children to the same fate by withholding medical care from them. Unfortunately, given the privileged position of religion in society, many states have laws that specifically protect religious child abuse through the withholding of medical care, as CHILD, Inc. documents in addition to the types of horrific deaths children have suffered due to religion-inspired lack of medical care.

Unfortunately, such is the pull of religion in this country that in many cases parents who let their children die by choosing prayer instead of medicine are often not prosecuted. When they are prosecuted, often they are not convicted. In addition, many states have religious exemption laws that make prosecution difficult or impossible. Indeed, I was shocked that Madeline’s parents were actually not only prosecuted but her mother was actually convicted for her death despite the law being stacked against the prosecutors. Laws exempting parents using prayer instead of medicine to treat their children are indeed frighteningly common, but that’s not the only way religious beliefs are privileged when it comes to children. Consider vaccine exemptions, for example. Nearly every state allows parents to refuse vaccines for their children based on religion alone. Many fewer states allow philosophical exemptions.

One state, it appears, is actually taking steps to try to strip legal protections for parents who choose to treat their children solely with faith and prayer:

Oregon lawmakers will take the first step today toward ending legal protections for parents who rely solely on faith to treat their dying children.

The bill targets the Followers of Christ, an Oregon City church with a long history of children dying from treatable medical conditions. A previous crackdown restricted but did not eliminate religious immunity from state criminal statutes.

Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, said deaths of three Followers children in recent years – all without medical intervention – prompted her to introduce the bill. “Such gross and unnecessary neglect cannot be allowed, even if the parents are well-meaning,” Tomei said.

The legislation appears primed for approval. It has wide support both political parties, prosecutors, medical providers and child-protection groups, and there is no organized opposition.

When I first discovered this story, quite frankly, I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised. This is a very good thing indeed. Religion is not a permissible excuse for letting children die. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Yet for over thirty years in Oregon, Followers of Christ have allowed at least 20 children to die of treatable or curable diseases. Just last year alone, for example, one notorious case was that of Neil Beagley, a 16-year-old boy who died of urinary obstruction that could easily have been treated. About a year ago, his parents were finally convicted of negligent homicide. However, deaths from faith healing appeared to be kept “all in the family,” so to speak, because it was more than just Neil involved:

The two most recent cases to go to trial, involving the deaths of 15-month-old Ava Worthington and her teenage uncle, Neil Beagley, clearly showed that some church members will defy the law, even if it means a prison sentence.

Ava’s parents testified that they believed their faith-healing rituals – prayer, anointing with oil, fasting and laying on of hands – were working right to the minute the girl died of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection.

Beagley’s parents testified that they never considered taking their dying son to a hospital or calling 9-1-1, even when he stopped breathing.

Ava’s parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington, were found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter. Beagley’s parents, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, were convicted of criminally negligent homicide last year and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

An additional case came to trial last year as well. This time around, it was a 7 month old infant with a hemangioma. The infant, Alayna Wyland, developed a hemangioma near her eye. This is generally a treatable condition, with the hemangioma being a benign tumor. However, even though hemangiomas are generally benign, that doesn’t mean they can’t do damage. They tend to grow slowly, and, being very vascular, they can develop considerable blood flow. In Alayna’s case, the mass grew, pushing her eyeball down and its large blood vessels eroding the bone of her orbit. She was in danger of losing the vision in that eye. Yet her parents, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, let the hemangioma grow to this size. In Alayna’s case, precious time was lost, because, even though 95% of strawberry hemangiomas involute, the natural history of hemangiomas that do not is to grow slowly like this, sometimes to huge sizes. If they are treated early, often with surgical excision, this sort of horrific outcome can be prevented quite effectively.

It’s long past time that every state eliminate the protections that allow loving but misguided parents to use their religion to justify denying life-saving medical care to their children because they believe that their faith will heal their children. Right now, Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie is showing us the way in Oregon. One thing that gratifies me right now is that there appears to be little or no opposition to this law. Given how easily fundamentalists are able to hijack the concepts of freedom and parental duty to persuade even more moderate religious people that stripping protection for faith healing represents a direct assault on religious freedom, I would have expected more opposition. Maybe a couple of dead children and a baby going blind with a big red growth on her eyebrow made it hard to oppose a bill like this.

Still, the real test will come after the law is passed. The reason is that, stripped of protection based on religion, parents convicted of medical neglect leading to the death of a child could be prosecuted for homocide. The hard part is that such parents, if convicted, would then be subject to Oregon’s mandatory sentencing laws. They’d be facing real jail time–long sentences. The question will be whether prosecutors, juries, and judges will have the stomach for that. As much as I’d like to think it possible, a far better solution would be to educate the parents, or even to get them to accept the idea that doctors are actually tools through which God works his will. Unfortunately, so powerful is the pull of religions like Followers of Christ that it’s highly unlikely that that will happen. Worse, I don’t know that even the threat of long prison terms will deter religious zealots, but right now I don’t have any better ideas.

Here’s hoping that Tomei succeeds in getting this law passed and that it becomes a model for the rest of the country.