Recent cases involving parents who claim a religious reason to refuse medical treatment for children have cast this issue back into the Public Square — and right into the headlines.
The cases draw immediate attention for good reason. Each case involves a sick or injured child, and in each case at least one parent refuses to allow needed medical treatments, claiming either a reliance upon divine healing, a resignation to the divine will, a medical practice specific to the religious tradition, or some particular objection to a specific medical treatment (such as a blood transfusion) or to all medical interventions.
Each case involves what appears to be conflicting interests — the parental right to determine the raising of children and the state’s interest in protecting the health and welfare of all citizens, including minors. All of these cases are tortuous in some sense, and some are deeply tragic.
In the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old Minnesota boy with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the issue is the fact that his mother, Colleen Hauser, has defied legal authorities and is believed to have taken him to Mexico for non-traditional treatments for his cancer. The Hausers believe in medical practices based on Native American traditions. After an emotional appeal from the boy’s father, the mother and son returned Memorial Day to Minnesota, where he will now receive treatment directed by pediatric oncologists. There is good reason to hope that the chemotherapy will be successful in the case of this treatable cancer.
In another highly publicized case, Leilani Neumann of Wausau, Wisconsin was convicted last week of second-degree reckless homicide in the death of her 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann. Mrs. Neumann refused to allow medical treatment for her daughter’s diabetes, and the girl died. The mother claimed a belief in faith healing as her rationale for refusing medical treatment for her daughter. According to medical authorities who testified at the trial, insulin and fluids would have kept the girl alive. Mrs. Neumann now awaits sentencing.
Another recent case involves a 16-year-old boy in Oregon who died a painful death when his parents refused medical treatment for what started out as a simple urinary tract infection. Citing a belief in faith healing, his parents substituted prayer for medical treatment. According to medical authorities, the boy’s death was easily preventable.
As these cases make clear, the headlines draw attention for good reason — children deserve medical care and parents who refuse medical care in cases such as these have no right to allow their children to die without the care and treatments.
And, amazingly enough, there is a strong moral consensus in this country that children deserve medical care and that the state has the obligation to intervene in such cases. This consensus includes both political liberals and conservatives and includes the vast majority of Americans regardless of religious conviction. Though there are important legal issues at stake, a broad consensus exists on this narrowly-defined question. In cases like those recounted above, there is no outcry against state intervention from Christian conservatives or from secular liberals.
The 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision Prince v. Massachusetts set parameters that continue today. In that case, the Court acknowledged the rights of parents as fundamental. In an important statement the court expressed this right: “It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder. Pierce v. Society of Sisters, supra. And it is in recognition of this that these decisions have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.”
But the Court also found that there were issues of the welfare of a child that could draw state authorities into this “private realm.” Specifically, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
As a parent, I respect this point. I cannot imagine denying my child any needed medical treatment or defending the right of others to do the same, whether claiming religious liberty or parental freedom for the care and nurture of the child.
I would defend the duty of the state to intervene in these cases, and I am thankful for the broad consensus that stands behind this duty.
I am not without concerns. Given the power of government and the reach of the state into almost all areas of life, the danger exists that the state could seek to expand this duty into other decisions related to education, discipline, and nurture — the very issues acknowledged by the Court in Prince v. Massachusetts to “reside first in the parents.” Yet, vigilance on those questions is the price that must be paid, lest more children be added to the list of those who die or are endangered by parents who claim a religious right to deny their child urgently needed medical treatment. As adults, parents have the right to refuse medical treatment for themselves. They do not have the right to refuse urgently needed medical treatments for their children.
As a Christian theologian, my concern is also directed to those who oppose medical treatment on what are claimed as biblical grounds. The Bible never commands any refusal of legitimate medical treatment. I am unspeakably thankful for modern medicine, for antibiotics and anesthesia and chemotherapy and dialysis and diagnostics. The list goes on and on. There is no Christian prohibition against legitimate medical treatment. I believe that God heals, that we should pray for healing in Christ’s name, and that our lives are in God’s hands. I believe that all healing comes ultimately from God, but that He has given us the blessings of medicine for the alleviation of much suffering and the treatment of disease. There is no conflict here.
There are serious issues of medical ethics in the case of some treatments, even as there are excruciating dilemmas that confront physicians, patients, and parents. Those must be acknowledged, but they are not the issues at stake in these cases.
In these cases I advise what the great Reformer Martin Luther advised — take your medicine and put your trust in God. For parents, this means to give your child the best care that modern medicine can offer, and to entrust your precious child to God and to God alone.
We will discuss this issue on Thursday’s edition [May 28, 2009] of The Albert Mohler Program. Write me at email@example.com.