In churches of all types across Indiana, prayers for the sick and dying are offered up every week.
And the relationship between God and good health is so pronounced that scientists have documented how people who attend church regularly seem to live longer, healthier lives than those who don’t.
But as was evident last week in the conviction of a Franklin couple who rejected medical care for their dying baby based on their religious beliefs, some people view the healing power of faith in absolute terms — that for God to work, modern medicine must be forsaken.
In the past three decades, more than 300 children around the country have died from medical neglect motivated by their parents’ religious beliefs, said Dr. Seth M. Asser, a critical care pediatrician who studied the phenomenon at the University of California-San Diego.
Such cases appear to be on the decline, but there still seem to be occasional bursts of medical neglect deaths tied to religious beliefs, Asser said. They get public attention in part because they often pop up in isolated religious communities whose practices aren’t widely known.
Maleta and Dewayne Schmidt — the couple convicted Thursday night — are members of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born in Morgantown. Some members of their church believe faith in God is all the healing power they need.
But the Schmidts’ daughter, Rhianna, died from a treatable blood infection just 31 hours after she was born. The Schmidts relied on their church elders and prayer, rather than doctors and medicine.
While the vast majority of religious groups in America welcome the healing hands of doctors, the Schmidts aren’t alone in their shunning of medicine.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have historically rejected blood transfusions based on biblical passages commanding believers to “abstain” from blood. Small clusters of Pentecostals seek healing only through faith in Jesus, with some even viewing doctors as manifestations of the devil.
And Christian Scientists traditionally have seen illness as an illusion of the mind that can be corrected through prayer. To turn to medicine diminishes the power of faith.
A spokesman for the church was unavailable for comment Friday, but the Christian Science Web site says health care decisions these days are a matter of personal choice. The site also features testimonies from believers who reject medical treatment in favor of prayer.
Iowa-based activist and former Christian Scientist Rita Swan sees it differently. She has been raising awareness about the dangers of relying on prayer alone since her child died more than 25 years ago, when she and her husband waited too long to seek medical help.
“Religious freedom in this country means that we have an absolute right to believe anything we want,” Swan said. “And we have a right to practice our religion until we start to hurt other people and trample on other people’s rights.”
Rooted in reality
Faith healing has been a part of Christianity since the days of Jesus. The New Testament book of James urges believers to ask church elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil to find healing.
Today, the laying of hands is practiced across a wide spectrum of Christian denominations, said Nancy Hardesty, professor of religion at Clemson University.
Before medicine left the dark ages of bloodletting, ignorance about germs and deadly “cures,” faith guidelines about medicine made more sense.
“In those early times, avoiding doctors and drugs was really beneficial,” she said.
But with medical advances, religious objections began to fade. That has been especially true among Pentecostals, who once rejected medicine almost universally, Hardesty said.
At Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Assembly in Indianapolis, people in need of physical healing come forward almost weekly to be anointed with oil and blessed by the healing touch of church leaders. There are people in the church who won’t use doctors.
But the church’s current pastor, Suffragan Bishop Charles M. Finnell, gets annual physicals and has been known to urge ailing church members to see doctors. He says children shouldn’t be deprived of the care they need.
“Personally, I believe that the two views are not conflicting. I believe in divine healing. At the same time, I believe in the wisdom and knowledge that God has given the medical profession,” he said.
Asser and others say lawmakers and prosecutors in the United States have been reluctant to challenge faith-related objections to medical care for children for fear of being seen as in opposition to religion.
A culture of protection
While a Johnson County jury found the Schmidts guilty of reckless homicide, the couple would not have been prosecuted in several states, including Ohio, where fatal neglect rooted in religious beliefs is still exempt from prosecution, Asser said.
Even in Indiana, parents who shun medical treatment for their children based on faith won’t be prosecuted if their child survives, no matter how severe the disability a child is left with.
The state has the authority to step in and order medical care when such cases are discovered, said Henry Karlson, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis. The problem is that some cases, like the one in Franklin, aren’t discovered soon enough.
Swan, the Iowa activist, is president of the nonprofit agency CHILD — Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty. She says many aspects of this culture of protection defy common sense.
In Arkansas, she said, one person can get the death penalty for torturing a child to death, while another who allows a child to die in agony through medical neglect based on religious beliefs can’t be prosecuted.
“There are people that claim they have religious beliefs against getting insurance. But the states have said, ‘Never mind that — you’ve got to get car insurance. It is for the benefit of other people,’ ” she said.
Several members of Swan’s advocacy group were children whose parents shunned health care based on their religious convictions. One, for example, is deaf because of ear infections that were never attended to.
Swan and her husband started raising awareness about this subject after they watched their 16-month-old son Matthew die in 1977. As lifelong Christian Scientists, they trusted a practitioner from their church to heal the baby.
Swan said she was taught in the church that Jesus healed the sick without medicine and told his followers to do the same.
Adult diseases were caused by a lack of faith, and the childhood diseases resulted from the sins of parents. The healing practitioner in her Michigan church attempted to help her son by praying for Swan and her husband.
When that failed, the Swans suggested it might be time to go to a hospital. But they were told the church would stop praying for the baby if they went.
The couple waited another three days before taking the boy to the hospital — and then only after the practitioner said the baby might have a broken bone, which her church viewed as something that could be given medical attention.
The baby, which had been fighting bacterial meningitis, died a few days later.
From there, Swan went public with her story and received national media attention.
A fine line
As tragic as it is when children die or are harmed because of their parents’ religious convictions, drawing up laws to protect children could be difficult, said Karlson, at the IU School of Law.
“Are you going to make a parent a criminal every time the child has a cold and they don’t call the doctor and instead they offer prayer?” said Karlson.
“I guess the point where you are going to be drawing it would be at the point where a reasonable person would believe the child is in need of medical treatment. Well, some parents take their kids to the doctor when they have a sniffle. Some don’t take their child to the doctor when they have the flu.”
May 15, 2005