Good faith, faith?

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A story in the NY Times today sets out the case of Kara Neumann, an 11 year old girl who died of juvenile diabetes.  Instead of taking their daughter to the hospital, her parents relied on the healing power of prayer.  The girl’s body eventually succumbed to ketoacidosis (the downstream effect of the body’s failure to produce insulin).  The day before she died, she apparently stopped speaking entirely.  Still, the parents prayed.

The Neumanns are being charged with reckless endangerment in Wisconsin, where a state law will not allow parents to be charged with abuse or neglect “solely on the fact that the child’s parent, guardian, or legal custodian in good faith selects and relies on prayer or other religious means for treatment of disease…” [W.S.A. 48.98] To me, it’s troubling that in 2009 we still have statutes on the books in 30 states that may allow parents to rely on faith healing when the potential harm to the child is death, and the intervention is relatively safe and effective. It looks like some of these state laws do not allow parents to seek safe haven if the disorder is life threatening, which is a step in the right direction.  The case will likely hinge on what the parents knew, and whether their treatment was in fact reckless.  The child had not been to a doctor’s office in several years, but the actual time frame for the acute episode appears to have been relatively short (around 3 days).

I understand that Kara’s parents were followers of an online faith network called Unleavened Bread Ministries, run by David Eells.  Members of the group have claimed on their website that “if we are going to judge this family — which we really have no right to do — we need to understand completely what the Bible states about healing and prayer.” Actually, we don’t need to rely on what the Bible says.  In courts of law, the Bible is not controlling.


(thanks to Julia for the reference)


One response to “Good faith, faith?

  1. lawandbiosciences

    Here are some comments from my facebook page:
    Good faith, faith? « Stanford Center for Law & the Biosciences Blog 11:13pm
    A story in the NY Times today sets out the case of Kara Neumann, an 11 year old girl who died of juvenile diabetes. Instead of taking their daughter to the hospital, her parents relied on the healing …
    Would love to hear your comments…
    Comment – Show Comments (9)

    Kathryn Dekas at 5:45am January 23
    Unbelievable. I am always shocked by cases like this.

    Maryhelen DOttavi MacInnes at 7:04am January 23
    My knee-jerk is, of course, that since the kid didn’t choose not to believe in medicine, parents have no right to force their beliefs on a child if it is to the detriment of the child’s physical health. I actually didn’t know there were states where that didn’t constitute child endangerment or abuse.

    But then I get stuck about what happens if the beliefs aren’t religious, but cultural or otherwise? (see what happens when you teach “The Spirit Catches You” every year?). Should we go to a system of medical paternalism for all minors? If we believe that parents shouldn’t be able to enforce detrimental medical beliefs on their children, why allow parents the ability to weigh in at all? What about parents who elect not to vaccinate?

    Fun stuff to think about.

    Russell Lawrence Cole at 7:29am January 23
    Personally, I think this case is a tragedy. I’m certain I don’t know what the right answer is, but to get the best answer, we can’t be too quick to dismiss one side or the other. Free exercise was pretty important to the founding fathers – so much so that they put it right up front.

    Should we criminalize molestation of children by parents that is done in the name of religion? Certainly.

    How about criminalization of the denial of medical care in life or death situations by parents done in the name of religion? Probably.

    How about criminalization of the denial of medical care in non-life or death situations by parents done in the name of religion? Maybe.

    How about criminalization of the denial of basic education by parents done in the name of religion? I’d say maybe (SC says no in the case of the Amish).

    To be clear, I’m not talking about what the law is, I’m talking about what it should be (regardless of where it currently stands).
    Russell Lawrence Cole at 7:30am January 23
    People get so caught up in establishment that they forget about free exercise. As I said, there might not be a right answer, but to get to the best answer, we should at least understand where everyone is coming from.

    I know, I know, “TL; DR”.

    Alison Bernstein at 8:21am January 23
    There is always the story of the guy in the flood who refuses help from a person in a rowboat, the person in the motor boat and eventually the person in a helicopter. He dies and in heaven he asks God why he didn’t answer his prayers. God says, I sent you boats and helicopters, what were you waiting for? In this case, maybe God was providing insulin and doctors.

    Scott Wessman at 10:46pm January 23
    William Saletan has some good comments on Slate:

    Teneille Brown at 11:31pm January 23
    In many ways, I agree with all of your posts, and I appreciate your thoughtful comments. To be clear, this is not about establishment at all, it’s completely about the limits of free exercise. Nothing I wrote contradicts this clause as it is traditionally interpreted – the Neumanns would likely lose under a 1st Am. challenge. For me the more interesting questions are those raised by Russ – where it’s not such low-hanging fruit and the harm and vulnerability principles do not resolve the issue so tidily. I don’t agree with complete medical paternalism – courts should weigh the effectiveness of the treatment against the harm to the child and any contrary concerns of the parent. Adults should be able to do many things to themselves according to their beliefs, but when a child is involved, they need to demonstrate more than adherence to an online forum. What if I believed in sacrificing my 9 yo daughter to stave off AIDS, as some religious sects do? Should that be allowed?

    Teneille Brown at 11:35pm January 23
    Btw, thanks Scott for the Slate cite. I particularly liked this quote, which echos the sentiments of Alison B: “Religion, at its best, needs the same humility. God isn’t stupid. He doesn’t give you a hammer and insist that you bang nails with your head. If this is his world, then so are the tools he has given you: doctors, medicine, and your brain. In the time of Jesus, most people died in childhood. Do you want to go back to that? Do you think that those deaths were God’s will—but that today’s long lives, made possible by modern medicine, aren’t?”

    Thanks for the thoughtful dialogue!

    Alison Bernstein at 6:30am January 24
    This quote from the website also raised an important point when dealing with religion. “Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a hospital. Jesus offered healing by one means only! Healing was by faith.”
    Jesus was the son of God (or God?). (I’m Jewish, not completely clear on Christian theology). He was capable of things that the rest of us are not. Why should we presume that we can do that same things that God or Jesus can do? I like the Slate author’s point that both science and religion need some humility.

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