Religiously motivated medical neglect

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Notable cases of medical negligence due to Christian beliefs

Ian Lundman, age 11, died of diabetes in 1989 in suburban Minneapolis. They retained a Christian Science practitioner for spiritual treatment of Ian's illness. An unlicensed Christian Science nurse sat by Ian's bedside for the last five hours of his life as he lay in a diabetic coma. She knew that he did not respond to anyone. She observed his vomiting, labored breathing, excessive urination, facial spasms, and clenched teeth. Nevertheless, her concept of care was to give him drops of water through a straw and to tie a sandwich bag and washcloth around his scrotum. She did not call for medical help or ask his mother to obtain it.

On August 22, 2003, Terrance Cottrell Jr. died as a prayer leader and boy’s mother attempted to “exorcise” the “evil spirits” of autism out from him. An autopsy showed he died from suffocation.

Female genital mutilation is a common practice in some religions and cultures. The scriptural support of the practice is disputed.

Child brides are perfectly acceptable in many world faiths. While this is primarily a cultural value, believers find scriptural support for this practice. This premature sexual activity and child-bearing can increase the likelihood of death from hemorrhage, obstruct labor and other complications.

Amy Hermanson, 7, died in 1986 in Sarasota, Florida of untreated diabetes. A neighbor urged her mother to take her to a doctor, but the mother refused. A few minutes later, Amy crawled in from another room on her hands and knees and begged her mother to take her home.

Matthew Swan, age 16 months, died of spinal meningitis in 1977 in Detroit, Michigan. His parents, Doug and Rita Swan, both lifelong Christian Scientists, retained Christian Science practitioners for spiritual "treatments." They complained that the Swans' fears and other sins were obstructing their treatment. After nearly two weeks of serious illness, a practitioner said Matthew might have a broken bone and that Christian Scientists are allowed to go to doctors for setting of broken bones. The Swans took Matthew to a hospital, where the disease was diagnosed as Hemophilus influenza meningitis. He lived for a week in intensive care. The Christian Science practitioners would not pray for him while he had medical care.

Dennis Lindberg, 14 years old, died from leukemia because he refused a blood transfusion which violated his guardians beliefs (Jehovah’s Witness).

Bethany Hughes, 17, refused the blood transfusion that would have saved her life. Her mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, encouraged the decision. The father opposed his daughter’s refusal to accept the treatment, and took the mother to court over custody. He later sued the church for her death.

Nancy Brewster was the child of parents who followed Christian Science. The untreated malignant tumor on her neck caused her slow decline and death. After her death, her mother denied she ever existed.

Harrison Johnson, 2 years old, was stung 432 times by wasps while the family was visiting church friends in Tampa, Florida. His parents asked neighborhood children and fellow church members to pray for him. The parents, members of “The Fellowship” (which reportedly shuns all medical care on grounds that doctors practice witchcraft), did not call for medical help until 7 hours later. Harrison had been unresponsive after his lungs slowly filled with fluid. A former medical nurse, Carol Balizet, of Tampa attended Harrison's home delivery and was present with him for several hours after he was stung. She advised the parents that he did not need medical care. Her book BORN IN ZION promotes Christian home births and argues that medical care is linked to pagan witchcraft.

Javon Thompson, 18 months was found dead in a suitcase. His mother was a member of the One Mind Ministry. She later admitted that the group thought the infant was possessed by a demon. The child was physically abused and deprived of food.

Andrew Wantland, age 12, died of untreated diabetes in LaHabra, California, in 1992. A Christian Science practitioner attempted to heal him with prayer for four days. He lost thirty pounds. On the last day of his life, he was emaciated, vomiting, and urinating frequently. Later in the day he was unable to eat, drink, make eye contact, speak, or move around. His mother, Gayle Quigley, lived in Philadelphia and was not a Christian Scientist. She had joint custody of Andrew and had made it clear that she wanted medical care provided for her children. Nevertheless, neither Andrew's father, the Christian Science faith healer, nor other church officials informed Mrs. Quigley that her son was ill.

In 1986, Robyn Twitchell, age 2, who lived near Boston, died of peritonitis and a twisted bowel after a five-day illness. It began with his screaming and vomiting. By the second day, his parents Ginger and David Twitchell were calling the Christian Science church's worldwide public relations manager for advice. He assured them that the law granted them the right to use Christian Science treatment instead of medical treatment. On the fourth day, a church nurse recorded: "Child listless at times, rejecting all food, moaning in pain, three wounds on thigh." The nurse force-fed him and directed his mother to feed him every half hour. On the fifth day, he was vomiting "a brown, foul-smelling substance." Autopsy photos showed bright red lips and chin, probably because the acid in the vomit had eaten the skin off. His scrotum and about 15 inches of his ruptured intestine were jet black because their blood supply had been cut off. He was so dehydrated that his skin stayed up when pinched. Neighbors closed their bedroom window so they would not hear the boy's screams. A church nurse reassured the parents that they “were doing the right thing.”

In early 1991, five children died in Philadelphia are of measles. The children’s parents belong to the Faith Tabernacle and had religious objections to vaccinations. The children died of slow asphyxiation as their lungs filled with fluid, or more rapidly from encephalitis.

6 month old Sean Woodrun died of untreated bacterial pneumonia. His parents were members of Faith Assembly, and chose not to seek medical care after several days of higher than a 102 degree fever. One can only imagine the screaming.

On November 28, 2007, Dennis Lindberg died at Children’s Hospital in Seattle after he and his guardian refused transfusions on the basis of their Jehovah’s Witness faith.  Dennis was in eighth grade and had turned 14 in September.

Notable Churches with religious beliefs against medical care

  • Followers of Christ
  • Faith Assembly
  • Church of the Firstborn
  • Christian Science
  • Faith Tabernacle
  • End Time Ministries
  • The Believers’ Fellowship
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Church of God of the Union Assembly
  • Church of God (certain congregations)
  • First Century Gospel Church
  • Full Gospel Deliverance Church
  • Faith Temple Doctoral Church of Christ in God
  • Jesus through Jon and Judy
  • Christ Miracle Healing Center
  • Northeast Kingdom Community Church
  • Christ Assembly
  • The Source
  • “No Name” Fellowship
  • The Body
  • 1 Mind Ministries
  • Twelve Tribes
  • Born in Zion Ministry

Since 1980 children have died in these sects without medical attention for:

  • pneumonia
  • meningitis
  • diabetes
  • diphtheria
  • appendicitis
  • measles
  • gangrene
  • dehydration
  • blood poisonin
  • Wilm’s tumor and other cancers
  • perinatal suffocation or strangulation
  • diarrhea
  • respiratory infections
  • kidney infections
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • epilepsy
  • pericarditis
  • strangulated hernia
  • bowel obstruction
  • sepsis
  • thalassemia

Do Parents Have a Religious Right to Abuse or Neglect Children?

Some religious groups have justified severe beatings, rejection of medical care, starvation, forced marriages, child labor, slavery, isolation, exorcism rituals, and sexual molestation as religious practices. The courts have consistently ruled that parents do not have a constitutional right to harm children. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedom, but does not confer a right to abuse or neglect children. The leading case is Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), in which the U. S. Supreme Court ruled, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death...Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

Nevertheless, state and federal governments have created many religious exemptions allowing parents to withhold some medical care from children, almost entirely because of Christian Science lobbying.

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