Religious exemptions from children’s healthcare. Part 2: Medical care during illness, and one child’s story

November 12, 2013 • 8:27 am

Yesterday I posted a list of state regulations exempting children in the U.S. from preventive and diagnostic medical procedures if they have religious objections. That was pretty depressing, but this is worse. It comes from the same page on the CHILD (Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty) site; indented material is copied form that site.

B. Exemptions from providing medical care for sick children

  • Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have religious exemptions in their civil codes on child abuse or neglect, largely because of a federal government policy from 1974 to 1983 requiring states to pass such exemptions in order to get federal funding for child protection work. The states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Additionally, Tennessee exempts caretakers who withhold medical care from being adjudicated as negligent if they rely instead on non-medical “remedial treatment” that is “legally recognized or legally permitted.”
  • Seventeen states have religious defenses to felony crimes against children: Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin
  • Fifteen states have religious defenses to misdemeanors: Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, and South Dakota.
  • Florida has a religious exemption only in the civil code, but the Florida Supreme Court nevertheless held that it caused confusion about criminal liability and required overturning a felony conviction of Christian Scientists for letting their daughter die of untreated diabetes. Hermanson v. State, 604 So.2d 775 (Fla. 1992)

States with a religious defense to the most serious crimes against children include:

  • Idaho, Iowa, and Ohio with religious defenses to manslaughter
  • West Virginia with religious defenses to murder of a child and child neglect resulting in death
  • Arkansas with a religious defense to capital murder

The scope of the religious exemption laws varies widely. Some protect only a right to pray or a right to rely exclusively on prayer only when the illness is trivial. For example, Rhode Island’s religious defense to “cruelty to or neglect of a child” allows parents to rely on prayer, but adds that it does not “exempt a parent or guardian from having committed the offense of cruelty or neglect if the child is harmed.” Rhode Island General Laws §11-9-5(b) Delaware’s religious exemption in the civil code is only to termination of parental rights, rather than to abuse or neglect, and does not prevent courts from terminating parental rights of parents relying on faith healing when necessary to protect the child’s welfare. See Delaware Code Title 13 § 1103(5)(c).Many state laws contain ambiguities that have been interpreted variously by courts. Some church officials have advised members that the exemption laws confer the right to withhold medical care no matter how sick the child is and even that the laws were passed because legislators understood prayer to be as effective as medicine.

The tangle of laws, in which parents can be exculpated from abuse or neglect but found culpable for manslaughter, has led to mass confusion in the courts.  The result is that when parents whose children die from religiously-based medical neglect are convicted, their convictions can be thrown out of court because of conflicting laws.  Or, when parents are convicted, religious sympathy for them results in trivial punishments: usually probation or a light fine. Only rarely do such parents go to jail.

But behind these laws lies a wealth of human misery.

One case, which horrifies me, involves Ashley King, the 12-year-old daughter of two Christian Scientists in Arizona.  In 1987, Ashley developed a bump on her leg, which grew and became more painful until she was taken out of school in November (this tale comes from Caroline Fraser’s book, God’s Perfect Child).  Her bump was an osteogenic sarcoma: bone cancer. The parents merely put her to bed, presumably prayed for her, and refused to let officials from her school see her. Alarmed at not having seen Ashley for months, the neighbors called the police in May, 1988. When a cop arrived on the scene, he immediately recognized Ashley as being near death. She was in bed, but had hidden her tumor, which had grown to a circumference of 41 inches (about 1 meter!), with a pillow. That tumor is larger than a basketball—it’s the size of a watermelon.

Child Protective Services ordered Ashley moved to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where doctors found that the cancer had metastasized to her lungs, her heart was dangerously enlarged from pumping blood to the tumor, and her genitals and buttocks were covered with bedsores. Doctors recommended amputation—not to save Ashley’s life, for she was terminal—but to relieve her horrible pain. The smell of her rotting flesh apparently infused all the rooms on the floor.

Her parents, John and Catherine King, refused that amputation, and moved Ashley to a Christian Science “nursing home,” where the only care is prayer. (No pain medications are given.) Such homes are supported by your tax dollars, as they’re eligible for Medicare and Medicaid assistance! When Ashley cried out in pain, the “nurses” (given only two weeks of training, and also supported by government aid), told her to be quiet, as she was disturbing the other “patients.” Records show that a practitioner was called 41 times for prayer in the 24 hours that Ashley was there. She died on June 5, 1988. Doctors believe that had her tumor been caught early, there was a 55-60% chance she could have been saved.

Ashley’s parents were indicted for child abuse and negligent homicide, but the homicide charges were dropped. They were finally convicted of one count of reckless endangerment—a misdemeanor—and given only three years of probation.

Fraser concludes the story on p. 309 of God’s Perfect Child:

After their sentencing to three years’ probation, the couple [the Kings] held a press conference at which Catherine King displayed a number of cardboard cutouts of her daughter [see below], which she had made out of enlarged photographs. She told reporters that her daughter had been terrified not by her disease or her pain but by the doctors who examined her: “The only analogy I can use to describe the terror, resistance, and sense of injustice Ashley felt is to compare it to what it must have been like for Anne Frank to be taken to the prison camp in Nazi Germany.” King also said, “I know I was a good mother, and no judge or jury in the country can convince me otherwise.”

I took a picture of the photo in Fraser’s book of Catherine King during the press conference.  The cutouts of Ashley are macabre but heartbreaking. The lack of affect or remorse of such parents is a recurring theme in the stories I’ve read about religiously-based child murder (for that is what it is). These people care more about appeasing their God than saving their children.

Ashley was a beautiful child, and might well be alive today if it weren’t for religion—and the U.S. laws that allow religion to kill children. In some sense, all Americans are culpable, for we allowed the laws to be passed, and the regulations put in place, by our own representatives. How many deaths will it take before we rescind those wicked and disgusting religious exemptions? They are a horrible sop to faith, and an offense to civilized society.

Catherine King at her post-conviction press conference, with cutouts of her murdered daughter. Photo by Michael Meister, The Arizona Republic

60 thoughts on “Religious exemptions from children’s healthcare. Part 2: Medical care during illness, and one child’s story

  1. Ohhhhh Jerry… You keep focusing on very extreme, very rare cases. Faith is good. This isn’t “faith”, this is delusion. There is a very big difference between the two!

    1. Even if the parents are at the extreme end of parenting, the laws that allow them to get away with it with a slap on the wrist are put there by regular politicians with the support of the regular electorate.

    2. Jerry is spot on!
      At the root of this insanity is the same cause – a god.

      And it is ALL delusion.
      Religious people are just too deluded to recognise the fact.

    3. No there isn’t. The “difference” you wish to exist is only between the contexts in which faith plays out. Faith doesn’t always lead to such horrors. It also requires opportunity, in this case provided by osteogenic sarcoma.

    4. As others have said, not sure if you are serious. Just in case.

      Your statement is wrong. This story is a perfect example of “faith.” “Faith” is, precisely, an act of delusion.

      Whether the delusion leads to exceedingly inhumane behavior , as in this story, or merely mildly irritating behavior is irrelevant.

    5. ‘Faith’ is a fine invention
      For Gentlemen who ‘see’!
      But microscopes are prudent
      In an Emergency!’

      Emily Dickinson

  2. Question for the constitutional experts: I’d have thought that these religious-exemption laws stand a good chance of violating the first two prongs of the Lemon Tests. Have there been any constitutional challenges to them? I guess it might be tricky to get standing to challenge them.

  3. Truly a horrible story.

    So “faith” is supposed to be a wonderful virtue, the “desire to believe” is supposed to indicate noble humility, and hope and trust in supernatural help and relief is supposed to be respected and fostered by a culture in love with the idea that this whole set-up is a valuable one. Strive to live by this ideal.

    And then we try to put on some brakes.

    The accomodationist position is that these parents were all monsters who simply used religion as a handy excuse. But what if at least some of them were otherwise excellent, loving, caring parents? Couldn’t they have been caught up in a world view where up is down, in is out, and religion wasn’t the easy alibi but the driving force behind it? They became monsters because they were deeply religious, not in spite of it.

    You bet it’s possible. Look at the whole fairy-tale- inside-your-head method of understanding the world formed out of religious faith. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

    Religious faith is bad. Selling the idea that “religious faith is fine as long as it doesn’t go too far” is going to fall apart once you realize that GOD defines the limits of what is or isn’t reasonable — not human consensus.

    With God All Things Are Possible.

    That’s even the official State Motto of Ohio. Those parents lived by it. “Ceremonial Deism” my ass.

    1. If this behavior is not normal among Christians it only shows their hypocrisy, for the Bible says:

      “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” – James 5:13

      The sacred text itself is the source of the problem here. So long as people regard such texts as divine guidance, some will feel it their duty to follow it. They need only an honest earnestness to go down this awful path, not abusive intent. The text itself, notably, sets it up as a test of faith, so that any person who is sufficiently serious about their religion would naturally see a grave illness as a test of faith rather than a problem to be solved in the material world with material methods.

      This is not the only such verse. Here, for example, is another where Jesus calls his disciples part of a “perverse generation” because they did not have faith enough to heal a boy:

      I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
      “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

      If you think Jesus is god, how can you not feel like a failure if you take your child to a doctor?

  4. Yes it was sarcasm, sorry for not clarifying. I just get so tired of the argument that atheists use “extreme” examples of religion to attack it, as if religion is generally a good thing. So I wanted to mock it.

    The case this post is about is particularly horrifying, it made me sick reading about it. It is the coddling of religion by society that allows this kind of child murder. There should *never* be religious excemptions when it comes to life or death decisions, or just about anything else for that matter.

    1. They’re not that rare, either. While there are only a few hundred Christian Scientists, there are 12 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the world, and most of them would refuse blood transfusions: for themselves and their kids. Many, many children and adult JWs have died because of that policy.

      How many deaths are too many too justify this horrible sop to religion?

      1. Surprised that only a few 100 CS’s. Is the Xtian Science Monitor still run by them? I’ve never understood the relationship.

        1. Wikipedia says that there are 85,000 CS members, but a significant proportion of these are in Africa. CS membership has been in steep decline since the 1940s, according to former senior members, and CS rules forbid publication of any membership details. CS membership in the US is not thought to be supplemented by new domestic members, and US membership is only bolstered by African members emigrating to the US.

      2. There are about a half-million Xian Scientists worldwide.

        There are only a few hundred “practitioners”, which are sort of their version of priests. General members go or bring someone else to a “practitioner” when illness strikes; the “practitioner” is supposed to have speshul skillz that will help the afflicted to correct their thinking.

        1. Well, one source puts the estimate of worldwide adherents as low as 150,000.

          I’d favor the higher estimates, though. I actually played the organ for a CS church for about a year. My sister was occasionally hired as a vocal soloist by another. Neither congregation was a particularly important one (like the “Mother Church”), but both had at least one hundred members.

  5. ‘Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.’ Hitchen’s fourth (revised) commandment.

    No realistic measures can be taken to relieve the uncomfortable illness I get when I think of what these people do and have done to children.

  6. How many years in jail do you think they would have got if their reason for not getting her treated was that they were too busy watching daytime TV and eating pizza?

    1. If a mother or father left a child in a crib to die because they were addicted to heroine (cf. Trainspotting) there is certainly room for manslaughter. Who knows, that parents’ disconsolation may be genuine and irreparable. Sad.

      When a parent intentionally does nothing while their child dies that is sociopathic brutality. Beyond sad.

  7. Occurs to me that there are statutes enabling bars to be declared nuisance bars which can then be shut down and (I think) even demolished. Why are there no similar statutes for churches? I know this would be like playing Wack-A-Mole, but at least it would be a formal recognition of the problem.

  8. These posts are bad for my blood preasure. I’m feeling a mixture of anger and sadness.
    How can people let any other being suffer so much, esp. when there are easy means to alleviate the pain, or worse in this case, when all this has had a good chance to be prevented completely. I don’t get it! I feel like screaming…

  9. What a horrific story. It actually brought tears to my eyes (and I think I’m hard ass).

    Just think of the amount of cognitive dissonance required for a mother to let her child suffer like this! She has to go against all that instinct & empathy!

    Such laws that enable this are anachronistic to the modern, civilized state & need to be removed!

  10. I doubt there is any worse torture than the mental and physical torture this child, and others in similar situations, was subjected to.

    Though I can conceive of it, I can not comprehend the lack of empathy it would entail for a parent to let their child suffer like this.

    People that are capable of this are a serious risk to society. It is disgraceful that our legal system provides cover for such behavior.

  11. Here’s the faith healing story from Oregon and Idaho that somebody mentioned in the earlier thread.

    Of the 553 marked graves at Peaceful Valley Cemetery, 144 appear to be children under 18. That’s more than 25 percent.

    Those deaths happened primarily in three different counties, which are manned by three different coroners who aren’t bringing the information to the public.

    Very few people had a good idea how many children were dying until now. Linda Martin started a Facebook page to keep track of them. That’s still probably not a complete reckoning.

        1. Yes, but that would never happen. And now for some unknown reason I keep singing “Wilson, King of Prussia, I lay this hate on you…”

    1. And then there’s this (from the linked article)

      “The caretaker at Star Cemetery in Star, Idaho said a Followers member recently showed up saying he needed to bury a baby. The baby was in the back seat of his car. The caretaker said he made the church member get a death certificate before he buried the child.”

      Who just drives up to a cemetery with a dead baby in the backseat and asks for a plot?

      And then politicians pass laws catering to these psychos’ delusions, and the local citizens stand by and let it happen, all because “faith is good” and “religious freedom.” This topic is the perfect example of how religious moderates enable all the evil, sadistic shit that the religious extremists do. It’s only because attacking religion is taboo in this society that laws like these exist. It’s fucking pathetic and it’s why I have just as much disgust and contempt for religious moderates as I do for the extremists.

      1. Well said. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel much the same way. Moderate/liberal Christians (in this country it’s mostly Christians, but I’m sure the same probably applies for Muslims, Jews, etc. in their respective regions) love to point out that MOST Christians are appalled by this sort of thing, but they do very little to fight against these kinds of crazies who share a religion (albeit a more extreme branch of it) and are always quick to defend religious liberty. They claim that these tragedies have nothing to do with religion and how dare you suggest that, yadda, yadda etc., And to me that’s equally offensive because the moderates are supposed to be the voice of sanity within American Christianity.

  12. I think part of what makes parents behave so sadistically is peer pressure from their religious group. Once as an intern, I (and the resident working with me) gave a blood transfusion to a kid whose parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They had said that they did not want the child to get any blood products during treatment, but they also said they wanted full resuscitation in the event of an emergency. The kid’s hematocrit was dropping, but otherwise the condition was relatively stable. The blood count was getting dangerously low, though, and the kid could’ve taken a nose dive quickly without getting a transfusion. So in the middle of the night, the resident and I decided that this was an emergency and that “resuscitation” in this case entailed a blood transfusion and that the order for “full resuscitation” overrode the order for “no blood products,” so we went ahead and gave the transfusion. It was tenuous logic and we probably could’ve gotten in serious trouble if the parents made a big deal out of it, but they both actually seemed very relieved when we told them. They were not at all upset. The kid, of course, felt and looked a million times better after the transfusion, so that also helped with the parents’ attitude. I think in this case they loved their kid more than their church, but were afraid to go on the record allowing a transfusion. I’m sure in other cases there would not be such a happy ending. We knew we were taking a pretty big risk by directly defying the order for no blood products, but we both felt that as the kid’s doctors our obligation was to the kid and we needed to do what was best for that child. We had a little bit of a debate on the ethics of this episode and decided that it would’ve been wrong to transfuse a competent adult against his or her wishes, but for a child (even though it is illegal) it is not wrong to defy the parents’ wishes if the parents are ignorant, delusional fools.

    1. Love that story. I grew up the the jehovah’s witness religion. My great uncle spent WW2 in a federal prison in Mississippi for draft dodging. His faith was later the death of him when he refused a blood transfusion during a heart procedure. Lack of blood destroyed his liver and colon. He was a tough old bastard, lived in misery for many months. His brother shared a similar fate. My great aunt is still around and has been shooting insulin for 50 or more years. Odd that the witnesses didn’t have problems with injecting insulin.

          1. Agree about rDNA origin insulin, also agree with the previous method. (here here piggy, piggy) I do think it takes some mental acrobatics to accept insulin but not a blood transfusion. A statement that has infuriated my family on several occasions.

    2. Well done. I would do the same thing in that situation. The parents can piss off if they have a problem with it. I’m sure I wouldn’t like the consequences if the parents decided to make an issue of it, but I sure as hell would not feel ashamed about it.

    3. I was glad when finally a case of giving a JW child a blood transfusion reached the Supreme Court in Canada in 2009, which resulted in the claim that the minor was violated by the transfusion being over ruled.

      I wish it went further, as the ruling advised that doctors must consider the maturity of the requester and I suspect this isn’t the case when minors make other decisions; it seems like there may have been some tacit pandering to religion with this one.

    4. I think the parents may have secretly taken the view that, though they could not consent to a transfusion, the fact it was done without their prior approval absolved them from responsibility for it. A not unusual human reaction. (Not that the whole JW thing isn’t batshit insane, of course).

  13. “She told reporters that her daughter had been terrified not by her disease or her pain but by the doctors who examined her:”

    If there is any truth in that statement, it is evidence the abuse was mental too.

    “I know I was a good mother, and no judge or jury in the country can convince me otherwise.”

    She is not just a horrible mother, but a horrible person if she has the gall to make these statements after killing her daughter.

    Christian Science: turning treatable tumors into tombstones.

  14. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy the main course. I dread dessert.

    I fail to understand how anyone can love any religious doctrine, let alone a debased one, more than they love their own child. It defies the basic primeval drive of procreation. The fact that prayer was not working must have been abundantly clear to Ashley’s parents.

    I don’t believe for one minute Catherine King’s claim that poor Ashley feared the doctors more than she feared her disease and pain. If she did, then it can only have been because her parents had indoctrinated her into believing that doctors were the evil spawn of Satan.

    I am left wondering whether, if either of her parents were to fall victim to cancer, whether, having seen the agonising death that they had subjected their own daughter to, and the utter failure of faith and prayer to help, they would resort to medical help.

    1. I think people like that should die screaming. That is their right and their privilege and I wouldn’t dream of depriving them of it, in fact I would enthusiastically endorse it.

      Where my tolerance stops is when they try to inflict it on someone else.

  15. How many deaths will it take before we rescind those wicked and disgusting religious exemptions? They are a horrible sop to faith, and an offense to civilized society.

    In his Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian said “Faith is an unclassified cognitive illness disguised as a moral virtue.” It would seem that any change in the policies regarding medical treatment of children needs to be preceded by a societal change of attitude concerning the concept of religious faith. As a foundation for his claim about faith being a cognitive illness, Boghossian cited the The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture by psychologist, Darrel Ray. This book, more than anything else I have so far read, shows the enormity of the problem that American society suffers as a consequence of its multiplicity of god viruses.

  16. Religious exemption from vaccinations for children, is one that flies under the radar. My local paper ran a stat that scares me…almost 12% of the students in my dustrict had not been vaccinated for Religious reasons.

    Polio is not a disease that can be treated with a few supplements from Whole Foods.

    1. There are a considerable number of non-religious anti-vaxers out there, too. Many of them are politically liberal types, which dismays me. I suspect that the 12% figure includes many of these people who use religion as the legal reason for refusing to vaccinate their kids while really being motivated by Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy.

  17. Another “religious exemption” here in Alabama is church based daycares are exempt from regulations required by the state for secular daycares. We have had negligence resulting in death of children on several occasions in these church ran facilities. Unfortunately, any questions relating to a place of Christian worship is a political 3rd rail in this state.

  18. The Center for American Progress posted an item titled The Effect of Childhood Vaccine Exemptions on Disease Outbreaks, which features a link to a report on the subject.

    The summary of the report is this:

    “While the issues of nonvaccination and undervaccination must be addressed to protect children and their communities from significant health risks, this report focuses solely on children who are not immunized due to parents’ use of nonmedical vaccine exemptions. We survey the research on state childhood vaccination mandates and exemption categories, focusing on the role that nonmedical exemptions play in reducing immunization coverage in communities throughout the United States.”

    The report contains sections titled, Current vaccination and exemption policies, The growth of nonmedical vaccine exemptions, The impact of nonmedical exemptions on disease outbreaks and Potential state and federal responses

    I shall re-post this on the related WEIT pages.

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