Religion and quackery: Pure synergy

Those of us who support science-based medicine and do our part to expose and combat quackery are naturally outraged at how rarely quacks are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. All too often, all we can expect is for doctors practicing such chicanery to lose their medical licenses and be temporarily shut down. I say “temporarily” because it’s all too often that such physicians manage to obtain licenses in other states. Hopping from location to location, such doctors can often practice for years relatively unmolested by the law, because most states have relatively ineffective state medical boards that either don’t have the resources to adequately investigate all the potential bad doctors or have laws that make it hard to take a doctor’s license away except for problems that represent the most pressing threats to patients, such as substance abuse, running prescription mills, or diddling patients.

Quackery, seemingly, is frequently rather low on the list of enforcement priorities. We’ve seen it again and again, such as with the case of Rashid Buttar, who basically worked with “integrative medicine” practitioners to change the law in North Carolina to prevent the medical board from disciplining a physician for using non-traditional or experimental treatments unless it can prove they are ineffective or more harmful that prevailing treatments. There was also Rolando Arafiles, who was pushed supplements in the emergency room of a small rural hospital and whose business relationship with the local sheriff led to the false prosecution of two nurses who reported him to the Texas State Medical Board. Then there’s Stanislaw Burzynski, of course. Don’t even get me started at how ineffective the Texas Medical Board has been in shutting him down, letting him off on a technicality.

If there’s one form of quackery whose prosecution is the rarest, it’s almost certainly religious quackery. I suppose it’s not surprising (to a point, at least) given how effectively the religious invoke the First Amendment to justify almost anything and how religion-infused conventional medicine is in this country. Whether it be faith healers, practitioners of quackery based on religion, or parents withholding treatment from their children based on their religion, seemingly no form of pseudoscience garners more deference from the law, even when it kills. For instance, the law and courts seem to bend over backwards to be deferential to parents who refuse chemotherapy for their children with cancer, such as in the case of Daniel Hauser, based on religion; refusing to treat highly treatable diseases like diabetic ketoacidosis, because they think they can heal their child with prayer, such as Madeline Neuman; or refusing spine-stabilizing surgery for a teen with a spinal cord injury. Although it does sometimes happen, it’s pretty rare for faith healers and religious quacks or parents who let their children suffer or even die from treatable diseases to suffer serious consequences for their actions.

Which is why a couple of stories of which I became aware over the long holiday weekend gave me hope; that is, after I was depressed to read them. First up, we have a religion-inspired cancer quack jailed for bogus cancer cures:

A prominent Los Angeles doctor who claimed that specially-prepared herbal supplements could treat a wide variety of diseases including cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease — with a success rate as high as 80 percent — has been convicted and sentenced to prison.

Christine Daniel, a Pentecostal minister, sold her miracle cures through her San Fernando Valley clinic and on the Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) show Praise the Lord. In September 2011 Daniel was convicted of several crimes including wire fraud, tax evasion and witness tampering. Last week Daniel was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison and ordered to repay over $1 million that she took from clients.

According to a story on Yahoo News, some of her patients died of treatable forms of cancer within 3 to 6 months after taking the supplements. Chemical tests showed the treatments contained beef extract flavoring and a sunscreen preservative.

One notes that according to a WSJ story, patients came to Daniel and trusted her because she was a minister. In fact, she appears to have played on her patients’ religion. In testimony, she was reported to have said:

Many reportedly said they trusted Daniel because she was a minister. She reportedly played on that faith, according to her jaw-dropping court testimony related by City News Service: “In faith-based churches, there are a lot of people who won’t go to doctors. They know in their hearts that what they are saying is not correct. They know the truth, and the Lord’s going to deal with this.”

Using the trust people had in her because she was a minister as well, Dr. Daniel, who had admitting privileges at several local Southern California hospitals, told patients to stop their chemotherapy and other conventional therapies for cancer and instead send her $5,000 apiece to use her herbal cancer cure known as “C-Extract.” Over the course of a few years, she managed to make over $1 million selling her herbal cancer treatment, as well as the use of a heat machine that, according to her, would shrink tumors. According to the original prosecution, at least 55 people used Dr. Daniel’s concoctions, and at least three dozen died after having rejected conventional cancer care. One, George McKinney, reportedly paid Dr. Daniel $100,000 for his treatment. Obviously, without more information I can’t possibly know how many of these patients had treatable, potentially curable cancers, but even if none of them did, choosing quackery over effective palliation at least robbed them of potentially more time and better quality of life. We do know, however, that at least one patient, a 22 year old woman, had a highly curable form of lymphoma and ended up dying. Very likely, she, at least, didn’t have to die. We also know that, according to the prosecutor, Dr. Daniel “repeatedly demonstrated a merciless and callous indifference to the suffering of her patients and their family members.”

Here’s an example of the results:

“I remember telling Dr. Daniel before we started, ‘If this isn’t real, if you can’t really help my daughter, please don’t take away our last time with her,'” LuAnn Kirsch testified at Daniel’s trial. “‘Just let us go home if you can’t really help.’ Because you don’t get that time back.”

And here’s another:

Paula Middlebrooks also put her faith in Daniel, who billed her nearly $60,000 over a five-month period to help treat her terminal breast cancer. Eventually, Daniel pronounced Middlebrooks was free of cancer and threw her a party. But in reality the cancer was spreading and Middlebrooks died shortly after she returned to her home in Georgia.

All in the name of God.

So what was this miraculous “Extract-C”? Believe it or not, a chemical analysis showed that it consisted of a sunscreen preservative and beef extract. Daniel hawked her C-Extract on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, claiming that it had a success rate as high as 80%. One wonders what quackery is still being hawked on TBN. Not having personally watched that channel in many a year (I used to enjoy a show back in the 1980s featuring a minister lambasting the evil Satanic influence of rock music), I don’t know. But one wonders.

Just out of curiosity, I took a ride in the Wayback Machine to take a look at Daniel’s website, which is now, not surprisingly, defunct. Right there on the front page, I found a book in which Dr. Daniel claims to have witnessed a dead child being raised from the dead through the power of prayer. Also—surprise, surprise!—Daniel is a creationist. One of her books is entitled My Cousins the Apes! Are You Serious? and has a blurb that reads thusly:

The book reviews the hilarious evolution theory from a medical doctor’s point of view. It goes into detail to show the complexity of the human body. If apes became humans, where did the first ape come from? Why are we not seeing more apes becoming humans? How did the animals decide which one would be male and which one would be female? From all possible genetic make-ups no one species of animals could or will ever become human. The human body is discussed to show how wonderful and fearful, God created us.

How did the animals decide which one would be male and which one would be female? To my stomach I say, “Steady there, big fella!” I must admit, that’s an anti-evolution trope I hadn’t heard before; so I suppose I have to give Daniel points for originality in her crankitude. She’s definitely an example of crank magnetism, because elsewhere on her website she bragged about having been the “Mathematical Decoder of the secret Code embedded in the Davinci’s Code name.” In any case, why is it that fundamentalist Christian physicians seem to think themselves uniquely qualified to comment on (and debunk) evolution? It’s damned embarrassing to me as a physician, although I must admit that it’s sometimes pretty hilarious.

In the end, though, it is a good thing indeed that Dr. Daniel is in prison, where she belongs. Hopefully, the state of California is combing through her assets to find the cash to try to pay back all of those good Christians who were the victim of a good Christian quack.

As sad as the saga of Dr. Daniel is, at least in this case there was something approaching justice. True, she got off too easy and should have life in prison as far as I’m concerned, but her sentence is a good start to send a message. Unfortunately, things get much sadder much faster when we contemplate the case of parents who let not one, but two children die on the altar of their religion. These parents killed their children, just as surely as Neumanns killed their child, through refusing to intervene when intervention would almost certainly have saved them.

Just last week:

A Philadelphia couple convicted of manslaughter for denying medical care to a child who died were charged Wednesday with the murder of another child.

Catherine and Herbert Schaible surrendered at police headquarters, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. They were being held pending a bail hearing.

The Schaibles belong to First Century Gospel Church, which believes in treating illness with prayer.

The couple are charged with the third-degree murder of Brandon Scott Schaible. The baby, just over 7 months old, died in April of bacterial pneumonia and dehydration.

“Sadly, there is only one reason for it: his parents,” District Attorney Seth Williams said at a news conference. “Instead of caring and nurturing him, they ultimately caused his death by praying over his body rather than taking him to the doctor.”

Yes, you heard that correctly. This couple had been convicted once of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment for denying medical care to their son Kent, who was a toddler at the time in 2009. The circumstances were eerily similar to the circumstances of the death of their son Brandon in April. In January 2009, they refused to take Kent to a doctor when he developed a cold. Over the course of two weeks, his symptoms steadily worsened into congestion, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Ultimately, he died of pneumonia.

As I said, Brandon’s death was eerily similar to that of Kent. In fact, it was the same thing. The child developed a cold, which developed into pneumonia, which ultimately killed the child, all while the parents did nothing other than pray. They prayed because they belong to a church, the First Century Gospel Church, which teaches that using modern medicine is a sin. Indeed, after their first conviction, their pastor, Nelson A. Clark, was reported to have said, “‘The legal community is trying to force our church group to put them in the hands of this flawed medical system, when they have chosen to put them in the hands of a perfect God, who does not make mistakes.”

Presumably, then, I can assume that God wanted Kent dead and in fact killed him. By Clark’s logic, that’s the only possible conclusion if God doesn’t make mistakes. This is entirely consistent with the beliefs of this particular church, as laid out in this document, Healing – From God or From Medicine?, which declares, among other things:

Many profess faith in Christ, but do not act in faith on His Atonement Blood for healing, protection, provisions, and other life issues. They say that doctors, medicine, and drugs are gifts from God—but the Bible does not say that, nor teach that. Bible Christians trusted God alone for healing.

My biggest question was this: How on earth could this happen again? The parents already showed once that they value their religion more than the life of their children. So how on earth could they have been allowed to keep their children in 2011, when they were sentenced? Unfortunately, the court didn’t throw them in jail for a long, long time, which is what they deserved. Instead, the court sentenced them to 10 years probation, making it in my mind just as guilty as the Schaibles in the death of Brandon Scott Schaible. The problem is that, with only rare exceptions (such as simultaneous physical abuse or cases of parents who are repeat offenders, such as the Schaibles are now) do such parents ever receive jail time. Usually, judges are reluctant to jail them and take them away from their children, their rational being along the lines of, “they’re good parents with strong religious beliefs that are different from the mainstream who did their best but made a mistake.” So, as in this case, they put the Schaibles on a meaningless probation with a promise, in essence, not to do it again (i.e., a promise to take their children to the doctor when they are ill). The welfare of the child is thus subordinated to the parents’ religion not only by the parents, but by the state, because it defies reason to think that judges are so naive that they really believe that parents who are willing to let one child die in the name of religion won’t do it again.

I’m not joking, either. That’s exactly what the court did in 2011. According to this report, in 2011, Herbert and Catherine Schaible promised the judge that they would “never choose religion over medicine again.”

Now, look at Judge Benjamin Lerner’s skewering of the couple:

The Schaibles gave statements to investigators last week, Lerner said, both admitting they believed that prayer was the best remedy for Brandon’s suffering.

“When asked why you didn’t call a doctor or seek a medical professional, you said, ‘Because we believe God wants us to ask him for healing,’ ” Lerner said. “You did that once, and the consequences were tragic.”

Lerner said the couple “knowingly, intentionally, hypocritically and callously violated” the most important term of their probation. But he did not detain them Monday because their remaining seven children already had been removed from the home by the Department of Human Services. The couple could face five to 10 years in prison for the probation violation.

“You are not a danger to the community,” Lerner said. “You are a danger to your children.”

So is the state that enables dangerous parents like the Schaibles. After all, even though the court ordered the Schaibles as a condition of their probation to bring their children in for regular medical checkups and to take them to the doctor when they got sick, their pastor recently:

Their pastor, Nelson Clark, has said the Schaibles lost their sons because of a “spiritual lack” in their lives and insisted they would not seek medical care even if another child appeared near death.

Clearly, the pastor knew the Schaibles better than the court did, and clearly the court system screwed up in how it oversaw this probation:

But a transcript of a later probation hearing that year shows probation officers were confused by their mandate to oversee the required medical care and felt powerless to carry it out. The family was not being monitored by child-welfare workers, who are more accustomed to dealing with medical compliance.

“I think that we all on the jury thought that it would not happen again, that whatever social and legal institutions needed to be involved in their situation would just take over … and that the mandated visits would be robust enough that they would not be able to do this again,” Vincent Bertolini, a former college professor who served as jury foreman at the Schaibles’ first trial, said Friday.

The result of all this deference to the parents and their religion? Another dead child.

Unfortunately, since quackery is baed more on belief than on science, there seems to be a natural affinity between quackery and religion, be it fundamentalist Christian religion like that of Dr. Daniel or the Schaibles or the Eastern mysticism that underlies more popular forms of quackery like reiki. To believe, you have to shut down your critical thinking facilities, and that makes you more susceptible to other belief-based quackeries.