Herbert and Catherine Schaible, the now infamous Pennsylvania couple who denied their second child medical care in lieu of prayer, are getting enormous media attention. The couple belongs to a fundamentalist Christian church. Their story has also brought to the forefront far too many other cases of abuse and death resulting from this “faith-based healing.” Due to this alarming trend, courts are taking a less tolerant stand than ever before. At the base of this issue is a potential conflict between freedom of religion and child protection.
The Schaibles have been charged with murder for the death of their 8-month-old son
The Schaibles refused medical treatment for their 8-month-old son and he died from treatable bacterial pneumonia. Like many others, their church preaches that use of modern medicine is a sin. At the time of the 8-month-old’s death, Herbert and Catherine were already on probation as a result of the previous death of their 2-year-old from pneumonia only four years ago.
The Schaibles were only convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2009 after the death of their first son. But this time, they will stand trial for murder. The terms of their probation required that they provide immediate medical care for their other children as needed. According to Judge Benjamin Lerner:
[The Schaibles] learned in the worst possible way…exactly what these symptoms could lead to in a child, especially a young child, if not medically cared for. . . .We’ve been here before…under strikingly similar circumstances.
The Schaibles’ only response was “[w]e tried to fight the devil, but in the end the devil won.” Unfortunately, the Schaibles are not alone in their beliefs.
Child deaths due to denial of medical care based on religious beliefs goes back centuries
One of the earliest cases of death as a result of faith-based healing was People v. Pierson (1903). A 16-month-old girl died from pneumonia after her parents refused to call a physician because their church taught that religion was the cure for disease. The father was convicted of only a misdemeanor for failing to provide medical care for a dependent minor. Since 1903, the number of these faith-based deaths has skyrocketed.
Faith-based healing deaths are growing to epidemic proportions
Whether as a result of more fundamentalist type religious groups sprouting up, or merely the increase in reporting and media attention, it seems that these types of deaths are becoming more and more common. For example, in 1991, eight children in Pennsylvania died in a measles outbreak. The families of all of these children were members of the same church. In 2011, an Oregon couple was sentenced to six years for the death of their premature newborn. He was born at home and died from complications. Another Oregon couple was sentenced to 16 months in prison in 2010 after their 16-year-old son died from a preventable blockage in his urinary tract. A woman in Auburn, Alabama was charged with criminal negligent homicide in 2008, when her 17-year-old son died from pneumonia. She also refused to seek medical treatment because of her religious beliefs.
In 1998, a study conducted by Seth Asser, MD, showed that of the 140 child deaths in the U.S. where medical treatment was denied by the parents, 90% of those children would have lived if they had received regular medical care.
An increase in criminal cases involving faith-based healing pits religious freedom against child protection
These regrettable cases have driven many to seek changes in laws that protect parents who claim religious beliefs as a defense. Currently, at least 30 states allow religious immunity in some form. But recent rulings are demonstrating that courts are taking religious-based neglect more seriously. For example, Oregon recently passed a law that precludes the defense of faith healing to murder charges.
Massachusetts has done the same. In 1993, a Massachusetts court exempted the parents of a child who died after medical care from criminal charges based on religious grounds. In response to that ruling, a law was enacted in Massachusetts requiring all parents to seek appropriate medical care for their children. Ultimately, it seems the purpose of these new laws and court rulings is not to deny parents freedom of religion. As Dr. James Lace, an Oregon pediatrician, stated: “We’re not going after religion or people’s rights to go to church. We’re going after neglect. . . . [These children] are dying of simple diseases that you can treat.” Until more states do away with the religious exemption more children will die from easily treatable diseases.