Jan 24 2014

Debating Faith Healing

In Idaho since 2009 four children were allowed to die of treatable illnesses because their parents relied upon faith healing alone. Their families were members of the Followers of Christ.

These cases have sparked a renewed debate in Idaho about allowing parents to deny their children basic medical care based upon their religious beliefs. Idaho law currently contains this exemption:

 “Treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.”

Lawmakers are discussing changing the law so that parents would be required to provide medical care, even if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. State Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa had this to say:

“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die. This is about where they go for eternity.”

I’m not sure what she means by “this,” but let’s assume she is referring to the entire situation of children dying from treatable illnesses because of their parent’s religious beliefs. Being generous, the issue does involve religious freedom, but it also involves the duty of the state to look after those who are unable to look after themselves, which definitely includes children.

Saying that “this is” only about the first issue is disingenuous, to say the least.

It is sometimes difficult to resolve ethical dilemmas where one ethical principle is in direct opposition to another. In this case, we cannot simultaneously fully respect the parent’s rights to make decisions for their own children based upon their religious freedoms, and respect the rights of defenseless children not to die from neglect. It comes down partly to which principle you value more, and partly to which philosophical ethical system you subscribe.

In this case, I completely support that rights of the children over the religious freedom of their parents on ethical grounds. I think this is the only defensible position. I recognize the need for religious freedom, but I think it is clear that all freedoms, including religious freedoms, have their limits. I don’t think the government would allow me to argue that paying taxes is against my faith.

I also don’t think any reasonable person would accept the argument that it is OK to murder another person because it is required by their religion. The rights of the other person not to be murdered clearly outweigh any personal religious freedom.

Once we accept that religious freedom has its limits, the primary question then becomes – where do we draw the line? Should we draw the line at providing basic medical care for children?

Another principle at play is whether or not children have the right to make autonomous decisions for themselves. Here we have significant legal precedent – children cannot vote, cannot purchase controlled items, cannot drive, cannot decide for themselves not to attend school, etc. We generally recognize that children do not yet have the capacity to make important life-or-death decisions for themselves.

In medicine, children are not able to provide consent for themselves. They require a legal guardian (the parents, by default) in order to provide consent for them.

Therefore, it cannot be reasonably argued that children can refuse life-saving medical care for themselves, whether based upon religious beliefs or anything else.

Society, and by extension the law, also recognizes that parental rights have limits. Parents cannot decide for themselves to deprive their own children of the basic needs of life – food, shelter, and education. This also includes basic medical care. Failure to provide these things is considered neglect. At least to the extent of assuring these basic needs are met, society considers all children their wards, even above the rights of parents.

All of these principles are well-established legally and ethically. The only reasonable conclusion that is consistent with these principles, in my opinion, is that parents do not have the right to allow their children to die of treatable medical conditions in order to satisfy the religious beliefs of the parents. If the parents want to allow themselves to die for their religious beliefs, they do have that right. But they don’t have the right to sacrifice their children at the altar of their beliefs.

Boiling all this down to, “This is about religious beliefs,” is absurd. It’s insulting.

I hope that the Idaho legislature does the right thing. Cases in which children die horribly of treatable diseases should be discussed prominently in the media – not to emotionalize the issue, but to keep it on the public radar. Sects that practice medical neglect of children want to stay under the radar, and want to be shielded by laws passed by pandering politicians.

I would prefer a transparent public discussion – let’s work through the issues and do what is right.

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