Feb 28 2012

Religious Freedom vs Consumer Protection

A Christian church in New Zealand has put up a billboard on their property that proclaims: “Jesus Heals Cancer.” This has caused a bit of a stir and prompted a discussion about the limits of religious freedom vs protecting the public from false or misleading claims.

The Pastor, Lyle Penisula, holds that the claim is true. This is actually the easiest aspect of the this issue to deal with – is there evidence that “Jesus heals cancer?” No. The Pastor himself offers, of course, anecdotes – cases of people in his church who survived cancer. He admits that they completed whatever treatment regimen they were being given by their doctors, but seemed to entirely miss the point that therefore we cannot conclude that it was Jesus who healed them. They may have simply responded to standard medical treatment.

There has been a fair bit of research into intercessory prayer. The results are essentially negative. More studies are negative than positive, and the positive ones have critical flaws (although they seem to get more media attention). If there were a clinically significant effect from intercessory prayer the existing studies would have shown a more consistent and clearly positive signal. What we have is most consistent with no effect. The evidence is incompatible with the claim that “Jesus heals cancer.”

If we were talking about a medical product or service I think it is clear that no legitimate regulatory body would allow the claim of curing cancer based upon existing evidence. It would be considered false advertising or even medical malpractice. But in this situation we are not dealing with a practitioner or commercial product, but a church putting up a billboard on their own property.

Bevan and Jody Condin, who’s son has leukemia, took offense at the sign and lodged a complaint. I can understand why they would be offended at the brazen claims – but someone taking offense at a statement is not sufficient cause to limit free speech. In fact the legal protection of free speech is specifically designed to protect unpopular speech. Popular or inoffensive speech usually does not need protection.

The pastor has refused to take down the billboard, and in fact seems to be enjoying the media attention it is garnering (which was probably the point of putting it up in the first place).

In my opinion I think free speech and religious freedom take precedence in this case. The pastor is not telling his flock to throw away their medicine. He is not selling a product. Also it should be clear that this is a church making a statement of faith. Further, the Condins and anyone else are free to publicly criticize the church and point out that their faith-based claims are without evidence. I just don’t see a role for government regulation in restricting such faith-based statements. The claim that “Jesus heals” is very common in the Christian community. Adding the word “cancer” after that does not change the fundamental nature of the claim.

In order to challenge the church’s right to make that claim you would have to challenge the more fundamental notion of religious freedom.

I do think we can get into muddy waters with faith-based medical claims, however. The privileged position enjoyed by churches simply by stating that their beliefs are a matter of faith has been exploited by those who are really promoting some form of alternative medicine. L. Ron Hubbard, after publishing his book Dianetics, came under fire for practicing medicine without a license. So he decided to simply make his therapy into a new religion, Scientology, and suddenly he was immune to regulation. Tradition healers have also played the religion card, and many CAM practitioners mix spiritual claims into their therapies. Some try to have it both ways – to practice medicine on the one hand but hide behind faith on the other.

In my opinion what is most critical is to keep the two things entirely separate. Religion and faith-based claims should be clearly presented as such, and not seek to insert themselves into the healthcare industry in any way.  Legitimate medical treatments, by the same token, cannot claim to be faith-based in any form, and must adhere to the strict standards of science and ethics that govern modern medicine. That is the real lesson of this story, and we have to be vigilant about the CAM movement’s attempts to blur the lines between science and faith when it comes to medicine.

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