Bush's initiative could help groups that promote faith healing

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 03 March 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:512
  1. Fred Charatan
  1. Florida

    Civil liberties groups, secular pressure groups, and some doctors have expressed concern at President George Bush's decision to set up a federal bureau for faith based social services. Religious groups will be able to apply for government funding.

    The American Civil Liberties Union, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Anti-Defamation League, have all objected to the plan. Some paediatricians are also worried that groups forbidding parents to take their children to doctors, encouraging the use of faith healers alone, will receive funding.

    A research study published in 1998 showed that a reliance on faith healers can put children's lives at risk. Dr Seth Asser of the University of California in San Diego and Dr Rita Swan of CHILD (Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty) wrote in Pediatrics of the deaths of 172 children over a 20 year period whose parents belonged to faith healing sects that forbid traditional medical care for illnesses (Pediatrics 1998;101:625-9).

    About 81% (140/172) of the children who died succumbed to conditions that normally have a high survival rate (90%) given proper medical attention, the commonest being pneumonia, meningitis, diabetes, and measles.

    More than 30 were from Colorado, where three children have died in the past two years because their parents, members of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, denied them medical treatment on religious grounds. These parents believed that prayer, rather than medical treatment, cures illnesses and disabilities.

    Marvin Peterson, an elder of the church to which the families of the three dead children belong, said that a member recently fell off a ladder and cracked open her skull. After elders prayed and anointed her with oil, he said, she recovered.

    “I've seen people healed of cancer—seen it with my own eyes,” Mr Peterson said, taking strong exception to critics who characterise the church as a cult. “We believe that if it's the Lord's will, you will rise up.”

    Largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Church of Christ, Scientist, which also favours prayer over medicine, Colorado and 45 other states have statutes that allow parents to use their religious beliefs as a defence against criminal prosecution for withholding medical treatment from their children.

    The US Supreme Court has twice—in 1944 and 1990—affirmed a child's constitutional right to medical treatment. In its 1944 decision, the court said that, although parents “may be free to become martyrs themselves, it does not follow that they are free in identical circumstances to make martyrs of their children.”

    In the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1996, however, Congress said that there was no federal requirement that a child must be provided with “any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or legal guardian.”

    Opponents calling for the repeal of the religious exemption said that this simply sanctified a form of child abuse.

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