Laws that allow children to die Religious exemption statutes

Arthur Caplan

April 08, 1991|By Arthur Caplan

SIX YOUNG CHILDREN have died during the past month in Philadelphia from complications due to measles. Two years ago five infants died in South Dakota as a result of meningitis and other infections. During the same period other kids died in California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Indiana and other states from diabetes, dehydration and bowel obstructions. Every one of these deaths could have been prevented.

The parents of all these children chose not to prevent them. They chose instead to follow their religious beliefs and to rely on prayer, anointing with oil, exorcism or spiritual healing to cure their children. That is tragic. What is incredible is that their choice is condoned by law in many states.

Forty-three states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, have laws on their books that protect from criminal liability parents who deny their children life-saving medical care on religious grounds. If a baby is convulsing and obviously racked with pain, but not brought to a doctor, religious-exemption clauses mean that no charge of neglect or abuse can be made. Some state laws even exempt parents from sexual abuse and molestation charges if religious reasons are invoked! Last year two Minnesota parents who allowed their child to die of diabetes had manslaughter charges dropped when courts cited the religious-exemption statutes.

Infants and children should not be dying of complications arising from the measles, diabetes or meningitis. Measles is completely preventable. Diabetes can be effectively treated with insulin. Meningitis can be cured if treated quickly with antibiotics. There are only two reasons why children die from these diseases. Some parents cannot afford to go to the doctor. The only other reason, and the one behind the deaths in Philadelphia, are laws that give greater weight to religious practices and parental rights than to the lives of children.

Every one of the measles-related deaths in Philadelphia involved children whose parents belonged to either the Faith Tabernacle Congregation or the First Century Gospel Church. Both teach that healing must be achieved only through prayer, anointing with oil, and faith. A number of other strict fundamentalist groups adhere to similar beliefs. In addition, Christian Scientists oppose medical treatment for children in favor of spiritual healing. Jehovah's Witnesses will not accept blood or products derived from blood as part of the medical treatment of their kids. There are a whole slew of cult-like creeds and sects that make the rejection of medical treatment and doctors key tenets of their faith. A few especially pernicious religious cults use starvation, beatings and even torture as part of their religious practices involving children. Children continue to die unnecessary deaths because the law gives complete leeway to their parents. Why do we continue to allow children to be sacrificed on the altar of religious faith?

One obvious reason is that respect for religious belief runs deep in the nation's social fabric. Some of the earliest European immigrants to this country were people fleeing the tyranny of governments that would not allow them to practice their religious beliefs. The Bill of Rights prohibits Congress from enacting laws that interfere with religious belief.

But the Supreme Court has recognized that even the freedom of religion has limits. You are free to believe what you wish, but you are not completely free to act on your beliefs. You cannot, for example, claim a religious exemption for human sacrifice or murder. Are children any less deserving of the state's protection?

We ought not tolerate state laws that permit parents to knowingly forgo proven and effective life-saving medical treatments for their children on the basis of religious convictions. It is unethical and it is probably unconstitutional to allow some parents to avoid prosecution for acts of neglect and abuse when the exact same acts bring immediate prosecution if done by parents who do not invoke religion.

Another important reason for permitting laws that kill kids is that we hate the idea of government intervention in parent-child relationships. To many, the worst possible kind of officious Big Brotherism comes when the state, using prosecutors, cops and courts, tries to tell parents how to raise their kids.

But, as hard as it may be to accept, some kids need the watchful eye of a governmental big brother. Kids whose parents would allow them to convulse and die in the name of their faith, who have parents who believe they must be starved and beaten to atone for their sins, infants who cannot call 911 when they break an arm or a leg or are scalded in a tub -- all need the state to step in and protect their welfare.

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