Prayer vs medical help
Parents withholding medical
from their children; legal exemptions.
||"The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious
belief, but not necessarily conduct." Judge Vincent Howard, Marathon County
Circuit Court, Wisconsin. 1
People in North America are guaranteed freedom of religion.:
||The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any action by an American
government which restricts "the free exercise of religion."
||Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that "Everyone
has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion.."
Courts have generally interpreted the concept of freedom of religion very broadly to
include both religious belief and most religious practices. e.g. the personal freedom to choose
prayer and/or religious ritual in place of medical treatment for a disease or disorder.
When faced with a medical problem, an adult can seek medical attention, use faith
healing, try herbal or other alternative medical treatment, or pursue no treatment at all, and let nature takes its course.
Some parents or guardians may wish to exercise the same options for their children.
The result is sometimes a conflict with civil authorities: should parents have
the right to follow their religion and withhold medical attention from their
children, even if the child will probably die needlessly? The problem is aggravated by the
teachings of some faith groups which create a culture in which seeking medical
health is viewed as rejecting God.
Problems sometimes occur in cases involving a minor or other person who is incapable of
giving informed consent for their own treatment. Parents and guardians are generally given
almost complete freedom in providing or denying health care to their children. But, in the
case of life-threatening medical conditions, the courts and Child Protective Services have
occasionally intruded, and ordered treatment of a child against the wishes of its
J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions
in Santa Barbara, CA has stated that at the start of the 20th century, there were many
faith groups that advocated prayer in the place of medicine. Their teaching was largely
motivated by a backlash directed against the inroads of modern medicine. The number of
groups that still advocate prayer has been dropping ever since. 2
Dr. Seth Asser, co-author of an article on medically preventable child fatalities
"You can't beat, sexually abuse or starve your kids, but the law
allows a parent to refuse medical care in favor of magic. This is not just a social
phenomenon, but a public-health issue." 3
Why do parents choose prayer in place of medical attention?
Thousands of children die every year in America as a result of neglect or
abuse. Often abuse is the result of spanking or other
forms of corporal punishment that simply got out of hand. However, this
essay deals with a different phenomenon: a sick child who is denied medical
attention -- often for an easily treated problem -- because of the parents'
reliance on prayer. On the order of one child a month in the U.S. is known to
die as a
result of a disease or disorder that is almost certainly curable with medical
attention. The full number is unknown.
The root cause of the problem is the parents' concept of truth. In the case
of Christians, truth is typically based on four considerations:
- What the Bible says and means, according to their faith group's
- Their faith group's traditional beliefs.
- Personal experience.
- Scientific findings.
Among many fundamentalists, Pentecostals,
evangelicals, Roman Catholics,
Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious conservatives, as well as
Christian Scientists, the first two criteria vastly
outweigh the fourth in importance. Some parents are willing to ignore medical
and other scientific knowledge and make decisions largely or solely on their
A major factor is not necessarily what the Bible says, or even what it meant
at the time. It is what the Bible means today.
Two examples are:
||Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that the
dietary rules in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) requiring that blood
be fully drained from meat before it is eaten are literally true. Hebrews
are forbidden to eat meat containing blood. The Witnesses interpret these
passages as being still binding on modern-day Christians. They also teach
that these passages prohibit a member from accepting a blood transfusion,
even if it is necessary to save their life. Few other Christian
denominations teach either of these beliefs.
||"Pastor Bob" is reported as having once written in the Unleavened
Bread Ministries web site: "Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a
hospital. Jesus offered healing by one means only! Healing was by faith."
1 The New Testament does not recommend that people seek
medical attention for themselves or their family. It does talk about medical
cures through prayer, sometimes involving the elders in the church and
anointing with oil. That might have been a useful teaching in the first century
CE Galilee, because there were no hospitals available and medical knowledge was
so primitive that going to the doctor, on average, endangered your health more
than just letting nature take its course. It was only in the early 20th century that
medical techniques improved to the point where physician care was beneficial, on average. To some deeply devout parents, the 1st century approach is
still the path to take.
Here again, the question is not what the Bible passages say, or even what
they meant at the time. It is whether they still have the same meaning
today. Some small faith groups teach that because hospitals and modern
medicine are not mentioned in the Bible, that modern-day Christians must not
take advantage of them today. Prayer, anointing, and the laying on of hands
are the only acceptable treatment. With the exception of the U.S., hospital
and physician care is now universally accessible throughout the developed
world. Most Christian denominations urge their members to take advantage of
medical help. A few small faith groups teach that the Bible requires their
members to avoid doctors and hospitals.
In 1974, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare first required
states to have clauses in their child abuse and neglect legislation that permits
exemptions from prosecution of parents on religious grounds. If a state refused, they would not receive federal child
abuse protection grants.
In 1983, the federal government allowed states to repeal these clauses.
However, most state still allow parents to use a religious defense if their
child dies because prayer was used instead of medical treatment.
Some recent activity at the state level:
||1994 Oregon: Legislature committees heard testimony
on two House bills that would require all parents to obtain medical help for their
seriously sick or injured children. The bills had strong backing from both major parties, law
enforcement, physicians, social workers and child advocates. "...there was
limited testimony from Christian Scientists who warned that eliminating the so-called
spiritual defense from Oregon's homicide statutes and other areas of the law would
unfairly impose upon their religious rights." 4
The House later endorsed a compromise faith healing bill that allows defendants
to claim faith healing as a defense.
||1994 Minnesota: The state passed a law which requires parents or guardians to alert child
protection services if they have withheld medical treatment and that their children were
endangered by their decision. Few if any parents or guardians report under this law.
1998 Texas: Critical-care pediatrician Seth Asser said:
"Kids die from accidental deployment of air bags, and you get hearings in
Congress. But this goes on, and dozens die and people think there's no
problem because the deaths happen one at a time. But the kids who die suffer
horribly. This is Jonestown in slow motion."
The American Medical Association, the National District
Attorneys Association, the Academy of American Pediatrics and
a growing number of local and state legislators agree with him.
||2001: The Academy of American Pediatrics went on record
in opposition to these exemption laws. 5
Colorado as well as Oregon had experienced an increase in
juvenile death rates that paralleled the growth of anti-medical faith groups. 5
Amanda Bates, 13, suffered a horrendous, lingering and painful death from
diabetes and gangrene in early 2001. She and her family attended the General
Assembly and Church of the First Born. She was the third child to die in that
church in three years. This motivated legislators to eliminate an exemption from
the child abuse law that had protected parents from abuse charges if they
withheld medical attention from children.
||2002: 38 states had laws that shield parents from
persecution if they reject medical treatment
for their children in favor of faith healing. However, most of these state laws specify that if a child's condition is life-threatening, then a
physician must be consulted. 6
||2009: Rita Swan is the executive director of
the Iowa based Childrenās Health Care
Is a Legal Duty. They advocate charging
parents who do not seek medical help when their children need it. She
reports that about 300 children have died in the United States during the
previous 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds.
Child abuse laws in 30 states still provide some form of protection for
practitioners of faith healing in cases of child neglect and other matters. 1
Some state laws exempt parents only if their children are faced with a
non-life threatening condition or disease. The Oregon law covering criminally
negligent homicide requires that the prosecution prove that the defendant failed
to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that is "a gross deviation"
from what a reasonable person would observe in a similar situation. 7 Both are difficult to prove in court. Parents can claim
that they did not realize that their child's condition was very serious; they
can claim lack of medical knowledge. A British law requires parents to seek medical help for their children, if the child's
condition does not improve after 72 hours of non-medical treatment. That type of
legislation may be more effective.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Dirk Johnson, "Trials for Parents Who Chose Faith Over Medicine," New
York Times, 2009-JAN-20, at:
"State, church clash over faith healing beliefs," Beloit Daily
News, Beloit WI, 1997-APR-21 at: http://www.beloitdailynews.com/
S.M. Asser & R. Swan, "Child fatalities from religion-motivated medical
neglect," Pediatrics, 1998; 101(4), Pages 625-629
Home in Zion Ministries has a home page at: http://users.southeast.net/
Jessica Reaves, "Freedom of Religion or State-Sanctioned Child Abuse?
Rising death toll fuels debate over parents who choose prayer over medical
treatment on behalf of their children," Time.com, 2001-FEB-21, at:
"No Cure for Cancer: Tenn. Mom, Preacher Accused of Letting Girl Die by Turning to God,"
ABCNews.com, 2002-OCT-3, at: http://abcnews.go.com/
Steven Mayes, "Fate of Oregon City faith healers now with jury," Oregon
Live, 2009-JAN-29, at:
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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-FEB-02
Author: B.A. Robinson