Shauntay Walker, age 4, died of meningitis in Sacramento, California, in 1984. Her mother was an adult convert to Christian Science and got her no medical treatment. Shauntay was home sick from nursery school for 17 days, but the school staff did not report to Child Protection Services. Her aunt observed that the little girl was comatose and threatened to call the police. Shauntay’s mother then moved her to a Christian Scientist’s home where she died. Shauntay weighed only 29 pounds at death.
On April 26, 2012, four-year-old Troy Damelio died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the family’s mobile home near Chandler, Oklahoma. His Church of the Firstborn parents told authorities he had been sick with a fever for about a week, but got him no medical care.
Lincoln County District Attorney Richard Smothermon announced that no charges would be filed. “The law is clear that [the parents] legally can withhold medical care based on religious beliefs,” the press reported him as saying.
In a country where freedom from government in matters of religion is one of the most fundamental of freedoms, the fact that religion plays a major role in the lives of many American adults and children is neither surprising nor controversial, that is until certain religious practices infringe on the fundamental rights of others, namely the right to life.
43 states offer some form of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure or even kill their children by withholding care on religious grounds
While adults retain absolute control over their own body, allowing them to refuse medical care or seek alternate forms of treatment in any circumstance, when it comes to children these decisions are left to the parents. Once again, this is neither surprising nor controversial until the life and wellbeing of the child is on the line: across the United States parents are allowed to refuse their children medical treatment or seek alternative forms of care against all reasonable medical recommendation under the guise of religious freedom. 47 states, California recently having left their ranks, allow religious exemptions from vaccinations. 43 states offer some form of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure or even kill their children by withholding care on religious grounds: if their faith mandates spiritual healing, the death of a child with cancer because prayer is used instead of medical care often leads only to light sentences of parole for the parents, if charges are brought at all.
This fear of both spiritual and social consequences lead the parents to seek the help of faith healers rather than medical assistance, allowing 11 year old Ian Lundman to slip into a diabetic coma and pass away while Christian Scientist practitioner prayed the illness away for $446.
The above makes it easy to demonize the parents involved but, while the almost complete lack of legal consequences is concerning, it is important to understand that imposing harsher punishments on the parents cannot on its own resolve the problem, and doesn’t even when the legal system does step up: if the choice is between a prison sentence and your child burning in hell, the outcome is self-evident. The parents of these victims genuinely believe they are doing the right thing: their respective faiths heavily encourage the belief that disease and injury are the result of the will of a higher power, often stating that the illness of the child is due to a lack of faith on the part of the parents. At the same time their neighbors and friends, religious figures they look up to and community leaders push these same beliefs, and a refusal to follow their teachings would lead to the family of an ill or wounded child that receives proper care to be outcast. This fear of both spiritual and social consequences lead the parents to seek the help of faith healers rather than medical assistance, allowing 11 year old Ian Lundman to slip into a diabetic coma and pass away while Christian Scientist practitioner prayed the illness away for $446.
If prosecution won’t work then the only solution is to impose limits on the freedom of parents to choose for their children when it comes to certain medical issues
If prosecution won’t work then the only solution is to impose limits on the freedom of parents to choose for their children when it comes to certain medical issues. To limit freedom is all but taboo in the US, but it is important to note that a free society is only able to function as long as the liberty of any individual does not infringe on that of others. Just as freedom of speech does not include willfully spreading false and damaging information about someone, freedom of religion cannot include making decisions that negatively affect others. This would most likely involve the stronger enforcement of existing child abuse laws and leaving some final medical decisions to the doctor instead of the parents; this would also have to extend beyond just emergency care into disease prevention, for example freedom of religion cannot offer an exemption from vaccines. The greatest strength of vaccines lies in the herd effect, widespread immunization to protect those weakest members of society that cannot be vaccinated and that 4% of people that have been vaccinated but on whom the vaccination has no effect. To allow exemptions from vaccines while continuing to allow the use of public services such as schools not only puts the life of the one child in danger, but potentially infringes on the right to life of others.
The Framers of the Constitution founded this country on the basis of the philosophy of John Locke, declaring freedom as absolute, but only so far as it did not infringe on the freedom of others. If the founding principles of our country are to be applied they must be applied, when necessary, to freedom of religion also, especially when it comes to the unalienable right to life.