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The Children’s Hour

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It’s stopped raining out where I am at the moment, which is a good thing.  It’s been raining like crazy here for most of a week, and down on the coast the kids are having rain days they way they used to have snow days.  Last week it was the Gold Coast that had to cancel classes for days on end because the storm had downed power lines and the damage took forever to repair.

(And here’s how you know that you live someplace called a Gold Coast.  For most of us, if the power goes off for days, we get to complain.  When the power goes off in Greenwich and Stamford, there are state and federal criminal negligence investigations.)

Anyway, today it’s the eastern shore that’s a mess, with flooding bad enough to carry away small apartment buildings and entire towns evacuated north to wait until the waters of the rivers recede.  A lot of people here are annoyed that President Obama declared only Rhode Island a disaster area.

At any rate, it’s Thursday, and Matt comes home today from one of the most annoyingly frustrating semesters of his college career–home only for the week-end, but you know what I mean.  And I have to drive down towards the damage, because the train station is in New Haven.

I’ve been reading a book I managed to get hold of only a year ago,  a book I went to some trouble to acquire and then circled around for months.  I think part of the problem was that I expected this thing to be very depressing.  No matter what my sons say, I don’t go out of my way to get depressed.

The book is called When Prayer Fails:  Faith Healing, Children and the Law, by Shawn Francis Peters, and I knew it was going to be depressing because I know something about the kinds of cases it covers.  If you don’t, you might want to go here:


I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that website, or that organization, before, but that’s the site for C.H.I.L.D., Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, founded by former Christian Science parents who lost children in a meningitis epidemic in Massachusetts in the 1980s, because they took those children to Christian Science practitioners instead of medical doctors.  Treated only by prayer and not by medicine, nine (I think) of the children died.

Yeah, I know.  It’s depressing.  But it’s at least as complicated as it is depressing, an the complications interest me.

You’ve got to understand that none of the Christian Science parents whose children died were convicted under child neglect laws, and that in most states in the union they probably could not be.  We’ve got laws on the books in every state that make it possible to charge parents with neglect if they don’t get medical help for their sick children–but almost all those laws have “religious exemptions” that say that a parent cannot be charged with neglect if the decision not to seek such help was the result of “sincere religious conviction.”

There are similar religious exemptions on the books to laws requiring things like vaccinations.

And most of our states have such exemptions because they have to have them to qualify for some federal funds for medical services.

The first time I heard about this, my reaction was completely knee-jerk:  charge faith healers with practicing medicine without a license and lock them up. 

But the question really is a lot more complicated than that, and it goes to the core of an issue that bothers me in a lot of ways.  There are limits to my libertarianism, but they’re pretty far out there, and it’s libertarianism all the same. 

I’m also the sort of person who gets immediately suspicious when people tell me we have to trash First Amendment and due process rights “to protect the children.”  It’s too handy an excuse for giving the state carte blanche to regulate private life.

So another of the reasons I was reluctant to read this book was that I was worried it was going to turn into the kind of one-sided, blind-fury diatribe I’ve read in “humanist” publications, triumphantly declaring that here is one more “proof” that religion is child abuse.

My fears were not allayed by rifling through the book on occasion.  I kept running across throwaway lines about “religious based medical neglect,” which is a term I find problematic at the best of times.

Now that I’ve actually started reading the thing, I find what the book actually is is a little schizoid, almost as schizoid as I am about the subject, and in much the same ways.

As far as I can tell, Peters uses the term “religion based medical neglect” both because it’s the only one he has to describe what he’s looking at, and because that’s the term used by those people on the side of the issue with which he agrees.

On the other hand, he does understand that whatever is going on in most of these cases, “neglect” is not it.  If anything, most of the parents involved go to extraordinary lengths to get the children the help they feel those children need–it’s just that, at the same time, they are firmly and sincerely convinced that standard medicine does not work and often that it causes more harm than good.

Nor does he see the cases as having simple answers, and some of the ones he covers are downright chilling–and not solely because harm came to, or might have come to, a child.  Consider the case of Rebecca Corneau, who was forcibly removed the the prison wing of a local hospital to give brith, because her last child had died in a breech delivery at home and the local district attorney thought she might give birth at home again and have the same problem, resulting in another dead child.

In other words, she was imprisoned–the authorities refused to accept the term, but that was what it was–not for a crime she had committed, but for something that wasn’t even a crime that she might do in the future.

Rebecca Corneau’s case is only nominally about faith healing.  Similar cases have cropped up across the country, involving women from many different religions and none.  When does the state have the right to force a woman to have a Cesarian section?  What if the doctors are convinced that without one, the baby will die?  What about a woman who insists on eating junk food, or who is addicted to crack or heroin, or who drinks a glass of wine every night at dinner? 

If you think I’m making this stuff up, or exaggerating it, you’re wrong.  These and similar cases have hit the courts in a dozen states, and all seem to be predicated on the assumption that, once a woman is pregnant, she ceases to be a human being with rights.  Only the child in her womb has rights, and those rights are determined by local authorities acting on current conventional wisdom. 

Even if the current conventional wisdom is skewed, exaggerated, or downright wrong.  (A glass of wine every night at dinner?  The child will be born with fetal alcohol syndrome!  Which explains France, where virtually every expectant mother drinks wine with dinner and the entire country is a basket case of damaged newborns.)

Still, Rebecca Corneau’s case is in this book because she refused to have her baby in a hospital, or to have a trained midwife in her home, for religious reasons.  And there are enough cases involving religion to make a case that this is a distinct problem of its own, with its own parameters.

It’s also a difficult problem to think about without becoming overwhelmed by emotion.  Many of these cases are heartbreaking in the extreme–children dying in agony from diseases that are easily curable in today’s medical environment; children dying young from diseases that are controllable if not curable.  Meningitis, diabetes, leukemia, even measles–one of the odder things about this book is the way in which it soon becomes obvious that the congregations of some of these smaller denominations have an oddly heightened susceptibility to diseases and conditions that are actually rate in the general population. 

I have no idea what that means.  It’s a question somebody should take up at some point, though–why is it that in a denomination of fewer than a thousand people there are a dozen cases of childhood leukemia?  Or several of Wilmes’ Syndrome, which is a (usually) non-fatal children’s cancer that is rare enough so that most people have never even heard of it.

Every time I start to look into this issue, I begin by assuming that it is a lot simpler than it actually is.  We know and can prove that medical science can control diabetes, say, and we know and can prove that prayer either doesn’t, or doesn’t very often, or at least cannot be relied on to. 

In the case of diabetes, this is certain–we actually know this.  It’s not (like the nonsense about one glass of wine at dinner causing FAS) either a conjecture or an exaggeration.  So where’s the problem? 

The problem is, of course, that it is in no way clear to what extent the government should be allowed to enforce expert opinion as if it were itself law, and that the cases never do stop with simply protecting the children.

Which brings us back to Rebecca Corneau.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2010 at 5:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'The Children’s Hour'

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  1. These cases are tragic – we’ve had some of them in Canada, including iffy ones such as at least one attempt to forcibly prevent a pregnant woman (I think a Native one, which adds another dimension to the issue) from using drugs and alcohol to yesterday’s local recommendation to forbid smoking in cars when children are present and one at least in which a mid-adolescent girl, of an age at which a court would normally give her at least some say for herself on contentious issues, came down on her mother (and religion’s) side rather than her father’s. She died. Young children are fairly routinely taken from their parents’ care for the duration of the treatment.

    I’m deeply ambivalent about experts. On the one hand, I do like to look up any diagnosis or recommended treatment, and not always just in the literature for laypeople. I want to know what the experts in the field have to say. On the other hand, I know damn well that common practice as recommended by experts in the field in a whole raft of cases – indications for hysterectomies, for example, and some cancer treatments – are based more on habit and local custom – or the custom local to whereever the doctor trained – than on hard scientific data, and in some cases, the data don’t exist. Medical research is difficult and expensive, and if something seems to work, keep on doing it. And if it doesn’t work sometimes? Well, that happens.

    I’d like a statistical analysis and a statistician to interpret it before I got worried about clusters of non-contagious and non-genetically transmitted diseases. Such clusters usually do pop up quite naturally from time to time, and get blamed on everything from the water to the transmission lines. I also knew of a family years ago who’d had one infant with a very obscure, horrible, slowly degenerative terminal neurological disorder. They were assured that it wasn’t genetic. They had a second child – who had the same disease. Genetic link or chance? Who knows?

    But back to the pregnant women – it’s the conflict of biology and our political philosophy again, isn’t it? As soon as we decide that a human being becomes a legal person, that person’s rights and the rights of the mother conflict.


    1 Apr 10 at 7:04 am

  2. Okay–just a note to clarify.

    It may be the case that a mother’s “rights’ and her childs “rights” could conflict–under a natural rights definition of rights, that would be virtually impossible–

    But, in the United States, a fetus in the womb, no matter how late term, does not have standing a a person under the law.

    It’s hard for me to understand how an entity that is treated in our law almost as if it did not exist–which is why you can abort it–suddenly gets any rights at all, never mind ones that conflict with its mother’s.

    The raft of cases against pregnant women that dotted the eighties and nineties seemed to have the rationale of, “you have to follow our rules about your behavior so that you don’t harm that fetus in your womb, unless you decide to kill it altogether, and then that’s okay.”

    Preemptive incarcerations of pregnant women over issues like this–and almost all the cases are in fact about preemptive incarceration–don’t seem to make much logical sense as policy, and have less to do with protecting anything or anybody than with the power of the state to enforce its latest ideas about how we should all behave.

    In other words, I think the preemptive incarceration of pregnant women has more to do with social control than it does with protecting fetuses, who are, in the end, always completely unprotected from the ultimate harm that can come to them.


    1 Apr 10 at 7:56 am

  3. I know, of course, that a fetus has no standing as a person under US law. I’ve assumed that the people supporting the kinds of legal actions against pregnant women we are discussing are acting under the assumption that the fetus is a person and has rights to various things, such as a smoke- or alcohol- free environment. I can’t think of anything else that makes sense.

    And this is, as you have pointed out, the rather loose usage of ‘rights’ that is so popular today, not the natural rights definition.


    1 Apr 10 at 10:33 am

  4. Are children (not talking about fetuses) the property of their parents? If a child is beaten for disciplinary reasons does that mean her parent is merely trying to correct bad behavior? When one adult strikes another, the victim can have the other adult with an assault misdemeanor. But doing the same to a child is discipline. If an adult was found unconscious, from illness or injury, would a passerby who failed to seek medical attention for the person be considered callous at the very least? But insistance on seeking medical help for a sick child is a violation of the parents’ personal religious rights? Do children not have no rights at all? Do one person’s rights end where the other’s begin?
    But again the claim that exposing children to second hand smoke (in cars or otherwise) always causes great harm is not necessarily so in all circumstances. I grew up with three smokers in my house, my former husband smoked, and my roommate smokes. According to that claim I should have been dead a long time ago but I haven’t developed any COPD symptoms. And I drank a glass of wine a few times when pregnant with both my daughters and both are very healthy.
    Isolating a woman for not accepting either a doctor’s or a midwife’s help with the birth of a child? How solid is the research that indicates the baby will not survive?
    One other thing, parental objection to vaccinations is not always for religious reasons. A number of parents accept the idea that vaccinations can cause autism. And in the ’50s when my roommate was a child in Liverpool, he nor any of his siblings were vaccinated because his father felt the injections were physically harmful.


    1 Apr 10 at 12:51 pm

  5. It’s not ownership so much as it’s a question of who has the ultimate authority over people who are generally agreed to be unable to make decisions for themselves. Is it their father? mother? both? other family member – patriarch or matriarch? state? Some of the parent or patriarch’s authority has been gradually ceded to the state over the centuries, and everything from physical discipline to age of majority is also mediated by culture and tradition which influence legal systems. I think in general it’s best to leave the children’s biological parents to decide almost everything, but of course then you get the biological parents who can’t seem to realize their children are independant entities, or who torture or murder them. Like in so many issues, you need a balance between parents and state – heavily weighted on the family side.

    I think that the autism-vaccination link has been discredited, but I know someone with an autistic child who will never be convinced of that, and there are lots of people in India and Africa who think vaccinations are part of a plot by white people to sterilize brown and black children. A vaccination program can work with small numbers of unvaccinated (for any reason) people, but if the numbers get too high, there’s a risk of an epidemic. Vaccinations are so numerous now, too, and often for diseases that people can remember surviving with ease, so the risk determinations aren’t always understood or accepted.


    1 Apr 10 at 1:55 pm

  6. Yes, the link between autism and vaccinations has been discredited. That issue is, to me, no different than treating children’s illness by praying over them, or the widely held belief in Africa that you can cure AIDS by raping a virgin.

    These are all dangerous. And the question, seems to me to be, to what extent is it acceptable to let a child die or become disabled because of the beliefs of his or her parents? I can accept spanking – it doesn’t cause permanent harm and it’s not always beating, jem. And they’re not my kids and I’m not raising them.

    But to let a person die simply because his/her parents believe in something that’s factually insupportable just seems wrong. Freedom of religion is incredibly important, but I don’t know how to balance that with these people who, like the parents of a boy here in Minnesota last year “just don’t think that chemo is a good idea” for a child with Hodgkins lymphoma.


    1 Apr 10 at 2:12 pm

  7. But who decides what’s factual? I know, that sounds silly in some cases, but it’s a real point. Experts – including medical experts – have propounded wrong ‘facts’ many times. And how do you decide what’s right? Even I – totally anti-euthanasia and assisted suicide as I am – would respect the decision of and adult that chemo or radiation therapy, although (perhaps) the only chance of a cure, is too agonizing and debilitated to endure, and that letting nature take its course is better. Who makes the decision for a child in such a case? In a sense, religion is almost — I was going to say ‘smokescreen’, but really it’s an alternate source of authority to the official one; the issue would arise with any authority that challenges the experts and/or the state. There have been cases of doctors who believe that continuing to treat a child is cruelty and morally wrong, and parents who want treatment to continue as well as cases where the parents oppose the treatment and the doctors or state insist.

    And either way, children die. They die because their parents insist on aggressive treatment (all treatment has risks) or refuse treatment; because they drive too fast with them in the car, or drive safely, but are in the wrong spot when some idiot does something stupid. The question isn’t whether parents decide to do something dangerous – even almost certainly fatal with their children, but who gets to decide what happens to the children; what risks to take.


    1 Apr 10 at 4:42 pm

  8. I’ll admit to being conflicted on this one. To neglect medical help for oneself or one’s children seems to me a misreading of scripture so extreme as to be almost incomprehensible–and deeply morally wrong. But to take the authority from the individual or the parent is to give it to the state. And both the state and the medical profession are fully capable of acting out of ignorance or incompetence–and both have a history of letting non-medical considerations trump the well-being of the patient. And if a democratic government kills or cripples, only to say “oops!” five months or 50 years down the line, then the blood is on MY hands.
    Again we’re back to “hard cases make bad law.” The obvious conclusion is that any governmental authority to act against the wishes of a person or a minor’s legal guardians ought to be very narrowly defined, and backed up by the most rigorous scientific evidence. Sadly, that’s not how such things have mostly been done.
    As for the peripheral points, the odd concentrations of rare diseases in small congregations may be the result of a shallow gene pool–too many cousins converted–or too much time in close contact with one another for comunicable diseases.
    As for a general policy that one may kill an eight-months child, but not damage it, welcome to America’s present rather schizoid view of pregnancy. But it also makes sense if you consider that the lawmakers would be saddled with the expense of a “defective” child, but not of a dead one. It’s the same sort of logic which leads to supporting both “assisted suicide” AND seat belt and helmet laws. If the state picks up the tab for my medical care, I can check out (dead) from my hospital or nursing home, but not be so careless as to risk needing long-term care. It’s a common enough attitude among rulers, or those who think of themselves as such.


    1 Apr 10 at 5:06 pm

  9. Spanking, as a form of corporal punishment, consists of a slap with the hand on the child’s leg, bottom, etc. While not preferable as a means of discipline, I don’t consider it abuse unless the spanking is harsh enough to case welts or bruises. Corporal punishment, even for purposes of discipline, can consist of striking a child with a belt, switch, or other objects, MaryF. That’s what I referring to. Violence, in the guise of discipline, is not preventive and does not teach anything positive. All it ultimately produces is anger and a tendency to use violence as a means of settling disagreements. If it’s not legal for one adult to assault another it also shouldn’t be for that same adult to assault a child.


    1 Apr 10 at 5:08 pm

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