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.