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When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine
On June 17, 1977, Rita and Doug Swan noticed that Matthew, their 15-month-old child, was having difficulty walking. Both parents were raised in the Christian Science faith, and they called a Christian Science practitioner, Jeanne Laitner, to pray for the child. Rita's prior experience with an illness of her own is relevant to this choice: When repeated prayer 'treatments' failed to give her relief from a painful ovarian cyst, she allowed physicians to operate. But she was viewed as having abandoned her faith. She was no longer permitted to lead church meetings or teach Sunday school. To Rita this loss of community was profound, and perhaps explains why, as her baby was getting worse, she did not seek medical care.
Laitner claimed that Matthew's continued illness was evidence of what, in the author's words, was the parents' 'failure to fully embrace God and his majesty.' Another Christian Science practitioner, June Ahearn, was called in to pray. Her response to worried phone calls from the parents was: 'It's only been an hour and a half since you [last] called. He can't possibly be in bad shape. It's you and Doug with your fear that are holding this whole thing up!' Finally Ahearn allowed that the boy might have a broken bone as a cause of his severe neck pain; Christian Scientists are allowed to see doctors to set broken bones. Once Matthew was taken to the hospital, it became abundantly clear that he had meningitis, but his condition was so advanced that abscesses had developed in the brain. He died of what would have been a survivable illness had he been treated earlier.
With Matthew gone, members of Rita Swan's church banded together, arguing that 'children with meningitis die all the time ... especially in hospitals'; Matthew's death was evidence that medical science couldn't do much better. Rita and Doug were ostracized for speaking out at what they saw as medical malpractice.
Looking back, Rita Swan offered an explanation for her failure to treat her son, although she had a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt and her husband had one from the University of Vermont in mathematics. Both were well informed, but their faith had cut them off from lifesaving treatment: 'Christian Science has all the features of a cult,' she explained. 'We should never have allowed ourselves to be isolated like that.'
This story is central to Bad Faith, which explores how religious beliefs can undermine medical care. Paul A. Offit, a professor of vaccinology and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tells us that our ability to protect children from abuse at the hands of parents is somewhat recent. 'At the time of Jesus' birth, infanticide was legal. Children weren't considered to be people; they were property no different than slaves. So parents could do whatever they wanted to them. Children were stoned, beaten, flung into dung heaps, starved to death, traded for beds, sexually abused.' As Offit writes: 'It is hard to overstate the influence of Jesus' teachings on the fate of children.' But, he goes on, 'given Jesus' love for children, his support of physicians and his belief that a God who abhors suffering and comforts the afflicted would never give children diseases as a test of faith, how did we come to a place where parents, in the name of Jesus, are willing to ignore the screams of meningitis, the breathlessness of pneumonia and the disfiguring erosion of cancer when lifesaving therapies are at hand? The answer lies in the illogical end to a series of events that were first described in the New Testament.'
Offit is referring to passages not only of Jesus raising the dead, but also of his apostles doing the same. Peter resurrected Tabitha, and Paul raised a young man named Eutychus. No longer were miracles limited to God or Jesus: 'Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these'. (John 14:12).
In fact, the reason for the continued and enormous popularity of faith healing is that, to some extent at least, it works. New research suggests that placebo response generates measurable endorphin release in the brain: 'Believing you are being healed causes the body to undergo physiological changes that promote healing.' Still, diseases like meningitis or leukemia are unlikely to be reversed by a placebo response.
Since the early 1900s, parents who willfully withheld medicine in the name of religion have been prosecuted and convicted. But, Offit tell us, beginning in the '70s, the prosecutors' task became difficult. The blame for this setback can be ascribed to two powerful men in the Nixon administration, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both famous for their roles in the Watergate scandal, and both Christian Scientists. They became involved because of Lisa Sheridan, a 5-year-old who in 1967 died of pneumonia. Her mother, Dorothy, a Christian Scientist, had opted for prayer instead of antibiotics. The autopsy of the child showed a quart of pus in her chest, and the Massachusetts district attorney charged Sheridan with manslaughter. She was sentenced to five years' probation. This was around the time when Walter Mondale was working to introduce the landmark Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act (Capta).
'Elders in the Christian Science church saw the trial of Dorothy Sheridan as a wake-up call,' Offit writes. 'If she could be prosecuted for following the tenets of her faith, all of them were at risk. Capta was about to shine an unwanted light on their way of life. Something had to be done. So church authorities turned to the two men they were certain could help.'
Haldeman and Ehrlichman inserted a religious exemption into Capta: 'No parent or guardian who in good faith is providing a child treatment solely by spiritual means - such as prayer - according to the tenets and practices of a recognized church through a duly accredited practitioner shall for that reason alone be considered to have neglected the child.'
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has never ruled on a faith-healing case resulting in the death of a child. Until it does, the ambiguity of Capta will remain, making it difficult to prosecute such cases. In Canada and Britain, where there is no religious exemption for medical neglect, deaths of children from faith healing are exceedingly rare. In America, the problem continues.
Rita Swan has dedicated her life to undoing Haldeman and Ehrlichman's work. She and her husband founded an organization called Child: Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty. Her efforts have led to at least five states passing legislation eliminating religious exemption from child abuse laws.
Offit embarked on writing Bad Faith, with the assumption that he would uncover 'story after story of medical neglect taking place in the name of God,' and show that 'religion is illogical and potentially harmful.' But that wasn't the case. 'Somewhere during the process of reading large sections of the Old and New Testament, I changed my mind, finding myself largely embracing religious teachings. Sort of like the man who went to church to find God, but found religion instead ... What I have learned is that to be truly religious is to be humane.' Such humanity expresses itself historically in ministries to those with smallpox and leprosy. Because of religious teachings, people have 'ministered to the downtrodden, fed the poor, housed the homeless,' and much more.
But even allowing for the positive role of religion in aiding the afflicted, one can only hope that the efforts of people like Rita Swan - and books like Bad Faith - will eventually bring about legislation that eliminates religious exemption for medical neglect of a child. Only then can deaths as tragic as that of Matthew Swan be prevented.
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