After 16-year-old Austin Sprout lost his life when his parents, Brandi and Russel Bellew, opted for prayer instead of medical treatment, their remaining six children became wards of the state of Oregon. The couple can still see their children under a new “in-home safety plan” which dictates a state “safety-provider” must be present during the visits, and mandates the “immediate notification” of the state Department of Human Services if any of the children have medical illnesses.
Austin Sprout’s parents are members of a church known as The General Assembly Church of the First Born. This small sect believes that prayer and related spiritual practices are the best and only antidote to illness. In 2013 the state of Oregon in response to several similar cases passed House Bill 2721 which: ‘Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age’.
Bottom line, the state has decided that the rights of a child for medical treatment trumps the right of a parent to impose her/his beliefs. Has the state gone to far?
Religious objections to medical treatment have historical roots that can be traced back to the late 1800s in England, when a sect called the Peculiar People ended up on trial for allowing generations of children to die as a result of their decision to reject doctors and medicine. Today, many religious groups routinely reject some or all mainstream health care on theological grounds, including Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish and Scientologists. “Fundamentalists tell us their lives are in the hands of God and we, as physicians, are not God,” says Dr. Lorry Frankel, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine and author of Ethical Dilemmas in Pediatrics. “We respect people’s religious beliefs and try to compromise, but we won’t deny treatment that will save lives.” Frankel says he’s taken Jehovah’s Witnesses to court in the past when they’ve refused blood transfusion for their children in life-threatening cases. “The judge invariably rules in our favor and I’ve never had a child denied care,” says Frankel.
I am a strong proponent for religious freedom. I too believe that there is healing power in prayer. I believe that western medical science can become out of balance and leave too little room for the spiritual. As a young chaplain in Sacramento I was moved by a Sioux shaman who burnt sage to return the ill to physical and emotional harmony. I watched a Hmong holy man utter sacred prayers and place anointed stones by the beds of the sick. As a Christian pastor I have offered up countless prayers for healing (emotionally, physically and spiritually). On occasion, I’ve seen miracles take place that physicians could not explain.
Yet, I believe too in the power of science and modern medicine. I see spiritual healing and medical healing as complementary. While I respect the faith of those who would limit or prohibit the use of modern medicine, I think the rights of a child trumps the faith stance of the parent when it comes to mainstream medical treatment.