A reader writes:

In your post, "Children, Sickness and Parents," you asked what rights children have when their parents seek to deny them medical care for religious or ideological reasons.  As the author of an article on this topic that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in April, 1995 ("Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church," ) and a subsequent book, God's Perfect Child:  Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (Metropolitan Books, 1999), I can answer that question. 

The 1944 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Prince v. Massachusetts, which concerned a Jehovah's Witness convicted of violating state child labor laws after insisting that her religious beliefs required her child to distribute Witness literature at night, that "the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death... Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves.  But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children." 

Despite this ruling, however, the Christian Science Church has zealously pursued the passage of religious exemption laws in virtually every state in the country.  The Church teaches that the human body and the material world are illusions, encouraging believers to deny disease mentally and refuse medicine.  Many of the religious exemption laws that Scientists lobbied for continue to blur the rights not only of the children of Christian Scientists but also of those belonging to many other cults and fringe groups, such as the faith-healing Followers of Christ, who refuse all obstetrical and medical care.  A private cemetery outside of Portland, Oregon, contains the bodies of dozens of their children, dead of easily treatable infections and diabetes.  In an article in Pediatrics (April, 1998), Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist whose infant son died of meningitis in 1977, and Seth Asser, a pediatrician, documented 170 children's fatalities due to religion-based medical neglect in the U.S. between 1975 and 1995.  The majority of those deaths resulted from illnesses in which survival rates, with medical care, would have been better than 90 percent. Prosecutors sometimes file charges in such cases, in states where the law allows it, and Christian Scientists have been convicted on charges of manslaughter.  But many convictions have been overturned due to the ambiguity created by religious exemption laws. 

Ironically, while the Christian Science Church dwindles into obscurity and insignificance, gaining few new converts in an age when medicine continues to discover new and successful treatments, the laws it put on the books live on.  Until those laws are fully and finally removed from every state, children born into families that refuse medical care on religious or ideological grounds will not be safe. More information can be found at the website of a group founded by Rita Swan, Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc.

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