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article imagePrayer Trumps Medicine in Decision over Child Death

By Carol Forsloff     Aug 2, 2009 in World
On July 23 an Oregon jury acquitted two parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, who died of pneumonia. A jury sympathized with their use of prayer not medicine to save the child's life.
Shawn Francis Peters, who is a faith-healing expert at the University of Wisconsin and author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law,” interviewed with Religion News service, talking about what the case might mean in relationship to the conflicts between religious and civil law, particularly involving treating illness with faith rather than medicine.
Peters wondered about the case, since Oregon had been said to have tightened its laws to make parents more responsible with regard to using proper medicine for their children. He said it seemed clear the Worthingtons had simply found a sympathetic jury.
He also said, “The verdict says “Americans aren’t necessarily hostile to the concept of faith healing. In fact, there is openness to its possibilities. The trial may have been less about faith-healing and more about the way we view the responsibilities of parents. There was a sense among jurors that the parents were doing what they thought was right. As a society, we have to give parents the latitude to do that. “
Peters went on to say the jury didn’t see using faith healing as opposed to traditional medicine was negligence, in that the parents didn’t mean to hurt their child but instead went on to believe the parents did what they thought was right.
The problem is there aren’t outright protections for children in these cases. The state has the interest of protecting the health and welfare of children, and even though that may take precedence over the First Amendment right for the exercise of religion, according to Peters, sometimes juries and some state laws make exemptions for faith-healing practices.
Last year the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled “A Child’s Death and a Crisis for Faith”about an 11-year-old’s death from untreated diabetes. The death occurred in Wisconsin in a case where again the parents relied on prayer instead of medicine for their child. Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston, Wisconsin are facing charges of second-degree reckless homicide in this case. Their daughter Madeline Kara Neumann died on Easter. She had been in a coma. After the death, deemed preventable with insulin, more calls have been made for a bill for the state to intervene in such cases..
The Church of Christ, Scientist, is said to be frustrated over stories like those of the Neumann’s but nevertheless declares, through Phil Davis, a Christian Science Church spokesman, "No one should be presumed to be guilty or innocent ...because they've chosen spiritual care” Still lawyers wonder what will occur in the Wisconsin case following the decision made in Oregon.
The problem in cases where traditional healing is pitted against spiritual healing is that a majority of Americans do believe in paranormal healing, whether that’s with crystals, chanting, prayer or contemplation. Gallup Poll found 3 of 4 Americans believe in the power of some sort of cosmic energy or spiritual assistance in healing.
Some want that American view on healing placed into law, despite the state’s interest in protecting children’s lives through traditional medicine. A Massachusetts bill was proposed to protect parents who use spiritual exercises, specifically prayer for healing instead of medical treatment. It stalled in committee. In the meantime, Oregon’s precedence with the most recent case on the matter of using spiritual healing may cause renewed debate on the subject of the state’s interest in preventing medical neglect vs. the parental right of religious freedom when it comes to finding the best avenue of help for sick or dying children.
More about Spiritual healing, Prayer, Death child
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