Religious Child Abuse Religious Child Abuse
By Dr. Seth Asser
November 2, 2002

As a pediatrician who has spent most of my career caring for critically ill infants and children, I'm here today to tell you about some folks who, in the name of their religion, allow their children to die without the benefit of modern medical care and about government policies and laws that lead to failure to provide these children with the equal protection of the law.

The very first words of the Bill of Rights state "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The founders clearly designed this to permit freedom of belief and to keep the government neutral, to keep it out of citizens' decisions on religious beliefs. Nevertheless, our government seems bound and determined to play a role in religious affairs. Such interference comes at the expense of taxpayers and, more important, to the detriment of innocent children.

If you are a Medicare recipient and you need custodial care for non-medical reasons, you're on your own. But if you are a Christian Scientist, the Medicare Act authorizes payment for your housing in a government-defined "religious non-medical health care facility." This is code for a Christian Science nursing home, the only type of facility to ever lay claim to Medicaid dollars as a "non-medical health care facility." These are places where the "non-medical health care" that is offered is prayer. The so-called nurses there will not take a pulse or a temperature, nor call for a doctor. But, they will call for a practitioner to pray. In fact, they require that residents retain a fee-for-service Christian Science prayer provider. The Sanatoria bill the government to the tune of 8-10 million dollars a year. Despite protests and lawsuits by healthcare advocates and taxpayers, such strange bedfellows as Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy have steadfastly promoted this federal subsidy of a religious practice.

It is troubling that we all have to pay for these pseudo-professionals to ignore the medical needs of adults. But they are, in theory at least, making their own health care decisions. However, it is a different situation when children, who are too young to decide for themselves or too dependent on their parents to choose clearly, are subjected to the same form of medical neglect. This neglect costs not just tax money, but their very lives.

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that while freedom of belief is protected, there is no right to freedom to act on those beliefs in a way that hurts others. Despite this and at the urging of Christian Science lobbyists, in 1974, the federal government mandated that states that receive child abuse prevention grants have laws that would exempt parents from the duty to provide medical care to ill children if they instead relied on "spiritual treatment." Since that time, close to 300 deaths of children of Christian Scientists and fundamentalist faith healing groups have been well documented, and there are more out there that are hidden from public view. These children died slow, agonizingly painful deaths from such easily preventable or treatable disorders and diseases such as appendicitis, pneumonia, measles or diabetes. They also exposed others in the community to infectious diseases and increase the risk to even those around them who are immunized.

Shauntay Walker was a 4-year-old girl who died in CA in 1984 from untreated meningitis, of a type now preventable with immunizations. She had not received any childhood vaccinations while the family dog was fully immunized. The law required it for the dog, but not for the child. We live in a country in which the laws that protect pets are better than those that protect children.

Ashley King died at age 12 from bone cancer. Because her parents neglected her medical needs beyond the time medical care could have been effective, a judge allowed her to be placed in a Christian Science sanatorium to live out her last few weeks. There she screamed in pain. Rather than getting her painkillers or a doctor, her Christian Science nurse scolded her, telling her that her pain wasn't real and that she was disturbing the other residents.

And without the aid of trained assistance during childbirth, many dozens of what would have been healthy newborns died during delivery. Several of their mothers also died needlessly, after agonizingly painful labor. In addition to those who've died, many more have experienced needless pain and suffering, or have been permanently disabled from neglect of their medical needs.

A few, though not many, of these dead and disabled children received media attention and the feds subsequently withdrew their mandate for religious exemption laws in the 1980's. However, with the exception of a handful of states in which publicity surrounding child deaths led to repeal of religious exemption laws, most states still have them. The message to the faith healers is clear: "Your dangerous and deadly behavior is acceptable."

To add insult to injury, in 1996, at the urging of Christian Science lobbyists, the Congress passed legislation that specifically enables states to have exemption laws to the parental duty to provide medical care to sick children. This year Congress is reauthorizing the act. The United Methodist Church with 9 million members passed a resolution calling upon Congress to repeal this religious exemption so that all children would have equal rights to needed medical care.

More than 25 national children's interest organizations also called upon Congress to repeal the exemption. But Congress has chosen to retain it, and a House staffer said the 5 Christian Science Congressmen demanded it be kept. This is hardly the separation of church and state that the founders intended. This is the government specifically endorsing a form of religious practice that has predictable and very tragic consequences, namely human sacrifice in the name of religion.

What can you all do about this outrage? If you neglected your children like this you would go to jail. When faith healers do this, they typically get away with it. If you're from a state that has religious exemptions, as most do, tell your legislators to repeal them. Make teachers and others in your community report ill children to child protection authorities while there is still time to help them.

Write to me care of Ellen Johnson, or directly at and join in the fight against this tragic behavior. Thank you.

More information can be found at Children's Health Care. Rita Swan provided us with the names of the five Christian Scientist Congressmen: David Dreier of southern California, Christopher Shays of CT, Lamar Smith of San Antonio, and two Virginia Congressmen (Robert Goodlatte and Thomas David III). Most states have religious exemptions to child abuse or neglect laws in either the civil or criminal codes, but several states have watered them down so that they aren't so egregious. The states with religious defenses to homicide or manslaughter charges are Oregon, Iowa, Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia, and Arkansas.

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