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Posted on February 10, 2020 at 10:25 AM

Two children (Kent and Brandon Schaible) have died of
treatable pneumonia and dehydration because their parents (Herbert and
Catherine Schaible) resorted to prayer instead of medical care.  In another particularly egregious case,
members of the Faith Assembly Church denied medical care to a 4-year-old with
an eye tumor the size of the child’s head. 
Law enforcement officials found blood trails along the walls of the
girl’s home where she, nearly blind, used the walls to support her head while
navigating from room to room.  Seth Asser
and Rita Swan have documented 172 cases of child deaths from preventable
medical complication between 1975-1995.  The
report does not include seventy-eight faith healing deaths reported in Oregon
from 1955-1998, or the twelve deaths in Idaho from 1980-1998.  As recently as 2013, five child deaths in
Idaho were reported from families whose religious beliefs prevented them from
seeking medical treatment.  What sort of
religious beliefs might possess a parent to refuse medical treatment for their
child?  

Christian Scientists base their
refusal on the religious belief that medicine is fundamentally mistaken in
thinking the ultimate cause of disease is biological, seeing the real source of
disease as spiritual disorder; and a spiritual problem calls for a spiritual
solution.  The reality of sickness is not
denied (e.g., you really do have pneumonia), however, the ultimate cause of
that pneumonia is a result of spiritual disorder that can only be properly
cured by spiritual interventions. 
Because medicine is preoccupied with the biological level, it is unable
to bring about change at the spiritual level where real healing occurs.  Sometimes specific scriptures will be cited
and interpreted as encouraging the practice of faith-healing (e.g., Epistle of
James 5:14-15, Mark 16:18)
{Campbell,
2010 #836}
.  Believers see an obligation to act as an
exemplary witness in the presence of illness by appealing to prayer, anointing,
and vigils alone for healing.  Some
scriptures are even interpreted as seeing recourse to medicine as an act of rebellion
against God (2 Chronicles 16:12, Luke 8:43-48). 
Others make more straightforward empirical claims by arguing that faith
healing is simply more effective than modern medicine by citing the high number
of annual iatrogenic deaths in hospitals (200,000-225,000 by some estimates).

Currently, most states offer legal
shield from child abuse and neglect statutes for parents who refuse medical
treatment for children on religious grounds (see: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/12/most-states-allow-religious-exemptions-from-child-abuse-and-neglect-laws/).  Prior to 1974, it was considered child abuse
to fail to seek medical care for a child on religious grounds.  However, a national movement was sparked by
the Christian Science Church to have religious exemptions to child abuse and
neglect statutes after a member of the church was convicted of manslaughter for
failing to seek medical care for their child. 
These efforts succeeded in 1974 with the passage of the Child Abuse
Prevention and Treatment Act.  Several revisions
have subsequently been made to the act, which now defers to states to decide
whether to include religious exemptions to child abuse statutes. 

These legal exemptions ought to be
overturned and secular clinical ethicists ought to continue recommending the
override of religiously motivated medical refusals for children.  A growing consensus in clinical ethics cites
the harm principle as the proper justification for overriding these refusals in
pediatrics.  However, debate continues
over how to interpret the harm principle in such cases.  Aside from locating a proper physical
threshold of harm (some suffering, significant suffering, permanent disability,
death), ethicists have also considered whether non-physical forms of harm ought
to be taken into consideration.  For
example, does a parent refusing requested puberty-blocking therapy for a
trans-adolescent cross a psychological or dignitary harm threshold that should
also trigger state action?  These are the
sorts of questions that continue to engender lively debate in clinical
ethics. 

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