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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar


July 1995

Christian Science

The editorial statement you wished to make in "Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church" (by Caroline Fraser, April Atlantic), that the religious practices of Christian Science families should come under the full purview of the state and its definition of health care, is severely undercut by the manner in which you make it. If one were to choose isolated cases of failure from conventional treatment in hospitals, it would not be difficult to cast a negative and distorted light on the whole medical enterprise.

One example of distorted coverage is the misuse of the statistic that 165 children have died since 1975 because medical care was withheld for religious reasons. The statistic may or may not be accurate; what is omitted is the fact that only a small fraction of these losses were actually the children of Christian Scientists. The author thus presents a skewed picture of Christian Science children doomed to suffer and die.

Since 1984 nine deaths of children from Christian Science families have been brought to court. It's hard to imagine how these losses are disproportionate to the general population, given the fact that an average of 50,000 children under the age of fourteen die under medical treatment every year in this country. Here are the experiences of three families who relied on Christian Science to heal their children. These cases are vastly more typical for Christian Scientists than those presented in your article.

On October 12, 1983, in Denver, eight-year-old Murray Palmer Hoyt, returning home from a violin lesson, was involved in a serious motor-vehicle accident. Murray was thrown through the windshield of the car and landed on the pavement more than thirty feet from where the vehicle finally came to rest.

The child was taken by emergency ambulance to Denver General Hospital, where an initial examination showed that he had sustained multiple head injuries including right and left frontotemporal skull fractures with orbital floor fracture. This resulted in medical diagnoses of subconjunctival hemorrhage and commotio retinae. He also suffered a fractured left femur.

His parents, both Christian Scientists, requested that the child be released to their care and stated that they preferred to rely on Christian Science treatment alone for his recovery. The doctors in the emergency-care section said that in life-threatening situations involving minors the state can intervene and decide what kind of care should be given. They stated that if the parents refused, they would get the necessary court order. Reluctantly the parents agreed, but they did call a Christian Science practitioner to give continuing prayerful support.

During the exploratory surgery, the doctors were surprised to discover no internal bleeding. Yet they still felt that Murray needed surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. When his father simply questioned the need for surgery, they reluctantly agreed to wait and make further tests. These additional tests showed enough improvement in Murray's condition that such surgery was never performed. Although it was predicted that he would not live through the night, Murray survived; he was, however, unaware of his surroundings and uncommunicative for a period of four days following the accident.

By the fourth day Murray had regained consciousness. At this point he was transferred from the emergency room to one of the children's wards.

During Murray's stay in the hospital his father ran into Harold B. Vogel, the chief of the neurosurgery division, who had headed up the team of doctors who had treated Murray. Dr. Vogel said, "I just want to let you know your prayers have been most effective in this case. There's no way we could have predicted this outcome from the evidence we had and the extent of the injuries your son had at the outset."

Today Murray is a college sophomore.

Daniel Trost, at eighteen months of age, suddenly developed an extremely high fever during the one-hour drive to his grandparents' home in Stanton, Kentucky. By the time he and his parents arrived, his fever was soaring. He suddenly went into convulsions, and his body stiffened. He appeared barely able to breathe, and his face turned blue. Medical treatment was just not available. The nearest hospital was more than forty-five minutes away, in the next county. The grandmother telephoned long-distance to a Christian Science practitioner. Within minutes Daniel responded and resumed breathing normally. His natural color returned. The fever left within a few hours. It returned the next day for a brief time, but it was much less severe. The practitioner prayed again. This time Daniel's healing was complete. Although his father was not a practicing Christian Scientist, he witnessed the healing and acknowledged it. That healing took place almost four years ago. There has been no recurrence of the condition, and today Daniel is a very intelligent and well-developed five-year-old.

In January of 1981, in Dallas, during a prenatal visit to her obstetrician, Linda Bumpus was informed that her baby's head was larger than expected. The doctor performed a sonogram using state-of-the-art equipment. These tests showed dilation of the ventricles and thinning of the cortex due to hydrocephalus. The attending physician, Richard A. Sparr, got in touch with the Christian Science practitioner on the case. He informed her that he foresaw a seriously damaged child who in all likelihood would not live, or would at best be seriously retarded. However, he agreed to order a follow-up sonogram after the practitioner had time to treat the condition specifically. When another sonogram was taken a short time later, it showed absolutely no evidence whatsoever of hydrocephalus. Healing had clearly taken place. On April 25, 1981, an obviously perfect child was born. Dr. Sparr was so excited that the first thing he wanted to do was to telephone the practitioner in the middle of the night to tell her that all was indeed well. Today Aaron Bumpus is an intelligent and completely normal child, age fourteen.

M. Victor Westberg
Manager, Committees on Publication
The First Church of Christ, Scientist
Boston, Mass.

Christian Scientists do not in general fit the profile of blind faith. Their religious views are, in fact, grounded in a pragmatic expectation that a genuine theology must make a difference in the here and now. Spiritual healing in my family has included the healing of a broken collarbone at birth and of spinal meningitis, both diagnosed and verified in a hospital context. Such experiences can no more be dismissed as "anecdotal" than can the wrenching instances of failure recounted in the Atlantic article.

It would be unthinkable for those who have had firsthand experiences of radical spiritual healing to go back on what they have seen or deny the implications for healing and for Christian experience alike. But it would be equally irrational to practice or advocate such healing without taking full account of the spiritual commitment and discipline it requires.

Stephen Gottschalk
Wellesley, Mass.

If adult Christian Scientists choose to forgo medical care, that is their choice and their right. They pay the consequences. When parents deny medical care to their children, whose religious rights are being exercised? Not the child's -- the child does not have a choice. This is not an exercise of religious freedom; it is an exercise of parental power. The parent chooses and the child pays.

Sean M. Samis
Wauwatosa, Wis.

I have the complete freedom to choose medical treatment for myself or my family but I don't, because I have found that Christian Science treatment is quick and effective. I naturally turn to God in need, and that need is always met. Every member of our Church feels the loss of children and adults who pass on under Christian Science treatment. We don't take these things lightly, nor do we brush them aside. This Church is determined to heal more consistently, more quickly, and with more love than ever before--just as doctors don't give up medicine when it fails but work to do better. Caroline Fraser's article points out that 165 children have died since 1975 because medical care was withheld for religious reasons (not all were Christian Scientists). Fraser conveniently omits that 53,000 children die each year under medical care. This clearly shows that to heal the world's ills, it is going to take all of us.

Richard Biever
State College, Pa.

In my ninety-seven years of living I have never been in a hospital or bothered with diseases. What a joy to know how to pray for anyone whose desire is union with the Infinite Invisible called God, which never fails.

Ruth M. Hamilton
Sanford, Fla.

As a lapsed Scientist, I find it incomprehensible that parents with ailing children who are not being cured by whatever method they are using, mental or otherwise, do not try another method.

Colin Wolfe
Haddonfield, N.J.

I cannot remain silent after reading your April article vilifying Christian Science, which so grossly misrepresents the religion that has been my only physician for forty years since childhood. I must question the fairness and objectivity of an author who rejects out of hand the vast record, often carefully documented, of many thousands of people who have successfully practiced Christian Science healing over many decades. Fraser focuses instead on the handful of tragedies in which healing didn't occur despite Scientists' best efforts -- as though medical treatment guaranteed a cure 100 percent of the time.

My family came into Christian Science through the healing of my young sister's polio, medically diagnosed with no cure offered; she was completely cured through Christian Science prayer. Since then she and I and another sister have relied solely on Christian Science for all our physical needs very satisfactorily, raising five children who have always been in excellent health.

Christian Scientists ask only the freedom to utilize their system, which has worked so successfully for hundreds of thousands of families over the past hundred years. To discount the entire teaching of Christian Science because of a handful of failures is patently wrong and cruel.

Suzanne Peniel
South Miami, Fla.

American history is replete with the sad tales of children who have suffered or died because of circumstances surrounding their parents' faith. Perhaps Caroline Fraser would argue that the Pilgrims who were also parents should have remained in England, because of the potential risk to their children of migrating across a hungering ocean to a largely unknown land, or that Mormon mothers and fathers in the 1840s should have renounced their beliefs in order to prevent the cruel deaths that ultimately resulted from hunger, cold, or persecution as they were driven west with their children.

People do occasionally suffer and die for their beliefs. That is part of the cost of having beliefs. Another part is passing those beliefs down from one generation to the next -- a process that begins with birth. Parents do not wait until their children reach adulthood before encouraging them to practice the teachings of their inherited faith. For the state to mandate otherwise -- except in cases of commission, where the parents actually inflict physical or mental injury on the child (instead of cases of omission, where parents merely fail to live up to societal norms, as in this case) -- is asking for trouble. Moreover, Christian Scientists who do not provide medical care for their children follow their course not out of "complacency," as Fraser calls it, but because they believe in a higher law. In their best adult judgment, they are acting in the best interests of the child.

Bruce Gelder
West Jordan, Utah

Caroline Fraser replies:

I am saddened but not surprised by the reactions from Christian Scientists and the Christian Science Church to my article describing the suffering endured by children whose parents zealously pursue this faith. Typically, Victor Westberg, a Church spokesman, expresses no sympathy or concern for the actual children whose neglect and deaths I described in detail, and he ignores the issue of the Church's moral and practical responsibility for the fate of those children.

Instead he raises once again the Church's specious argument that more children die under medical care than under Christian Science care. This is, of course, true, because medical care, despite its limitations, is the accepted mode of health care today, for the very good reason that its results are quantifiable and verifiable. For Westberg to write that "it's hard to imagine how [Christian Science] losses are disproportionate to the general population" is particularly puzzling, given that the Church itself has made it impossible to determine the facts, by refusing to allow statistical study of its practices or their results.

Westberg himself told me, "We never keep track of the records of how many [Christian Science] children pass on." The only relevant question, a question that the Church has never addressed in any way over its entire history, concerns the number of preventable deaths among Christian Science children and how that number compares with the number for children who have adequate access to health care. If the Church is so proud of its "scientific" healing record, why doesn't it open up its practices to independent scientific evaluation?

Westberg criticizes as "distorted" my citation of the statistic that 165 children have died since 1975 owing to religiously motivated medical neglect because I omitted the fact that this figure includes victims of sects other than Christian Science. His charge is false; those sects are mentioned in preceding paragraphs. Westberg himself has distorted the facts. The nine Christian Science children whose deaths have been the subject of court cases in this country over the past decade represent only a small fraction of those who have died or have suffered longstanding pain or permanent disability. The religious-exemption laws for which the Church has lobbied have prevented additional criminal prosecutions.

Finally, Stephen Gottschalk's use of such terms as "blind faith" and "anecdotal" is peculiar in the extreme. Christian Science, which encourages its followers to ignore the evidence of the physical senses, is the very definition of blind faith. And, as Gottschalk well knows, the descriptions in the article of the "wrenching instances of failure" of Christian Science treatment are based not on anecdotes, as all Christian Science testimonies are, but on medical and court documents, including death certificates.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1995; Letters; Volume 276, No. 1; pages 8-11.


August 1995

Suffering Children

Some months back Caroline Fraser telephoned me for an interview in connection with her article "Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church" (April Atlantic). On the day of her visit she put to me a number of questions about my early separation from my position as archivist of the Church and also about my protests of Church policies. I answered fully, openly, and, I hope, courteously -- and I consciously did not resort to "this is off the record." To my surprise, Fraser did not ask me a single question about Christian Science healing or its application to children. So I felt I must take the initiative -- but as I began, she closed up her notebook and put away her pen. Why? I thought. I went ahead anyway and discussed my daughter, whom I love deeply, and who as a child had had Christian Science treatment exclusively when ill. I naively thought that Fraser might count my daughter's experience as worth knowing about; after all, the two are more or less contemporaries, and my daughter, like Fraser, has an advanced degree from Harvard. (Unlike Fraser, my daughter remains a devoted Christian Scientist.)

Then I read the Atlantic article and understood. Fraser evidently arrived at my door persuaded that she had everything she required on Christian Science healing and that there was no more to be had. I was heartsick to learn from the article, for example, that she had grown up in a home where the practice of Christian Science had not provided her with physical healing other than what she would describe as the outcome of "dumb luck." That wasn't true for me as a child, I know. When I was four, my father was told by no less than the Mayo brothers that he had six months to live; thereupon he hauled our family out of the large, highly respected Lutheran Church in my community and took us over to the humble, suspect Church of Christ, Scientist -- where he found healing. And I hope my daughter, too, recalls significant healings through prayer during her years of growing up.

I regret now not having said more to Fraser about the discipline that is essential in this healing work -- a discipline that embraces years of consecrated Bible study, daily systematic and thorough prayer to God, continual attention to moral regeneration, and, last but by no means least, sheer caring effort that grows out of compassion and the fullest respect for others, including a child.

Lee Z. Johnson
Boston, Mass.

A major error in Caroline Fraser's article was her assertion that Mary Baker Eddy's writings contained ambiguities that left the door open so that her followers might regard her as a second Christ. In The Manual of the Mother Church, the short book by Mrs. Eddy that governs the Church, a by-law titled "One Christ" flatly states that anyone who believes in any Christ other than the one in the Bible is contradicting both the Bible and what she herself wrote about the Bible.

Mark W. Hendrickson
New Wilmington, Pa.

Caroline Fraser replies:

I certainly remember the warmth and pride with which Lee Johnson described his daughter, but I believe his memory has failed him in some respects regarding our discussion. He did not, to my recollection, tell me that his daughter was still a practicing Christian Scientist. It is true that my primary interest in interviewing him was to learn about the manner in which his employment as Church archivist came to an end. But Ialso remember asking him near the end of the interview for his opinion of the child cases, and my notes bear this out. His reply was so lengthy and its logic so internally inconsistent that it was not possible to do justice to it in the article. (I do plan to describe the interview in detail in my forthcoming book.) His reply does, however, bear out my description of the defensiveness of Christian Scientists when questioned about the rationality of treating the medical problems of children solely with Christian Science. Johnson began by admitting that Christian Scientists face a problem in regard to the treatment of children, saying, according to my notes, "Right now we're under the gun in legislatures all over the country. In some respects, I don't blame the legislatures. If I were them, I'd be asking sharp questions too. We love our children, but we haven't done well. We're not talking about statistics, we're talking about human children." He then, however, went on to insist that religious-exemption laws are a necessity for Christian Scientists. Later he admitted, "Some of these children's cases are indefensible. . . . If anybody's to blame, it's the Church. We haven't done everything possible to support the healing practice." Yet he seemed unwilling to consider any of the practical solutions that society might wish to weigh in response to Christian Scientists' spectacular failures with children: "We lose cases, I admit that. But if medicine was one hundred percent successful in every case, Christian Science would disappear tomorrow. . . . Maybe we will be proved wrong, but I think this Church has an obligation to do its thing and do it well, and society has the right to stand by and let us do it well, but if we don't do it well, we don't deserve a place in society."

In response to Mark Hendrickson's charge that I have mistakenly inferred ambiguity in Mary Baker Eddy's descriptions of herself where there is none, I will point out that the Christian Science Church itself, through its board of directors, has long intuited and responded to this ambiguity. The board saw fit in 1943 to publish in the Christian Science Sentinel, and subsequently to sell as a pamphlet, an article titled "Mrs. Eddy's Place" that purported to clear up this knotty issue. It claimed that "Mrs. Eddy, as the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, understood herself to be the one chosen of God to bring the promised Comforter to the world" and that she "regarded portions of Revelation . . . as pointing to her as the one who fulfilled prophecy by giving the full and final revelation of Truth; her work thus being complementary to that of Christ Jesus." In 1978 the board withdrew this pamphlet, apparently having recognized that it tended to support an inflated view of Eddy. The fact of the matter is that Eddy made one statement about herself in the Manual but also made other, conflicting statements, both in print and in person to her followers, including the one quoted in my article.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1995; Letters; Volume 276, No. 2; pages 8-13.


October 1995

Suffering Children

No Christian Scientist I know would want or allow to happen to their children, or any child, what Caroline Fraser describes in her article "Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church"(April Atlantic). Although it is one-sided, the article may have a positive effect in nudging the Church toward clarifying its policy on this matter. Voluntary adoption of the English law, which requires parents to seek medical help if no improvement is seen after seventy-two hours of Christian Science practice, would be a positive step. Indeed, Fraser smooths the way for such a policy by pointing out that Mary Baker Eddy herself would support it.

Eric Oddleifson
Hingham, Mass.

It is comforting to note that Caroline Fraser, toward the end of her article on the Christian Science Church, concedes that Mary Baker Eddy agreed that a physician could be called if a physical problem had not yielded through prayer. Contrary to popular belief, Mrs. Eddy had high respect for the medical profession.

Grace C. Carter
Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1995; Letters; Volume 276, No. 4; pages 8-18.

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