Children's Health: Trusting God Over Doctor

| Fri May 29, 2009 12:18 PM EDT

The following is a guest blog entry by Deena Guzder.

On May 20, 2009 a Wisconsin mother who followed an apocalyptic religious website said in a videotaped interview played at her trial that she did not call a doctor when her 11-year-old daughter was dying of untreated diabetes, but instead prayed for divine healing. “I just believed the Lord is going to heal her,” said Neumann. “I just felt that, you know, my faith was being tested.” During the trial, one of Neumann's surviving teenage children defended her parents’ decision to eschew medical intervention. “Because God created everyone, and how can we be more powerful than God?” the teenager said. “Why should we diss him and think a doctor would be more powerful than God or trust a doctor more than God?"

Even after her daughter was pronounced dead, Neumann told a detective, “I'm not crying and wailing right now because I know she's, I know she's, she's gonna come, she's gonna come back.” Unfortunately, there was no resurrection.

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Last week, after more than four hours of deliberation, a jury found Neumann guilty of second-degree reckless homicide. Neumann’s trial drew national attention and reinvigorated debates on where religious freedom ends and child abuse begins. Although the U.S. Supreme Court's 1944 ruling in Prince v. Massachusetts clearly states that parents can make martyrs of themselves but not their children, thirty states—including Wisconsin—still have religious exemptions from child abuse statutes. “From 1975 to 1983 the federal government required states to enact religious exemptions to child neglect in order to get federal funding for state child abuse prevention and treatment programs,” explains former Christian Scientist Rita Swan, executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Health Care Is A Legal Duty. Swan began advocating against all religious exemptions after church members encouraged her to pray for her sick infant instead of call a doctor. Swan’s son died of meningitis. Next week, a Milwaukee lawmaker, assisted by a church, could introduce a bill that may change Wisconsin's faith-healing law.

Meanwhile, a Minnesota mother and her cancer-stricken 13-year-old son Daniel Hauser emerged from hiding after a week of evading court-ordered chemotherapy. The boy suffers from Hodgkin's lymphoma, which doctors warn has a 90 percent cure rate with chemotherapy, and a 95 percent chance of killing a person without it. Hauser’s parents had previously argued that chemotherapy conflicted with their religious belief in “natural” healing methods; however, at a hearing Tuesday, both parents said they would follow doctors' recommendations. The change of heart suggests at least some religious adherents’ views on secular medical are malleable. Pediatrician Rahul K. Parikh writes that those who have lived through the living hell of cancer treatment can sympathize with the Hausers' decision to flee although chemotherapy was ultimately the right decision: “Fighting cancer pits a person against potent drugs. But because of their horrid side effects, they take the doctors' credo, “First, do no harm," to its limits.” The Hausers didn't refuse chemotherapy outright, but defied doctors and a judge’s ruling only after Daniel experienced some of its violent effects following one round. According to the Associated Press, at least five American families have had a parent flee with a sick child in recent years to avoid state-mandated medical treatments.

From bloodletting in the 19th Century to classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder until as recently as 1973, the medical establishment is far from perfect. Nonetheless, most people recognize that modern medicine has saved countless lives. “For me, what makes this especially tragic—and complicated—is that faith healing parents genuinely want to help their kids,” says Shawn F. Peters, author of When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law. “But they're so committed to religious ideology that they fail to recognize the indisputable benefits of many standard medical remedies.”

Deena Guzder has reported on human rights issues from New York, Tehran, and Mumbai. She is the author of a forthcoming book on progressive religious radicals for social justice, currently scheduled for release by Chicago Review Press in 2010.