Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Saturday April 1, 1995
The unwillingness of many Christian Science parents to seek help from physicians for their critically ill children has led to many painful and unnecessary deaths and, increasingly, to legal actions that have become burdensome to the Church and its members.
“Beloved in Thee I Am Well Pleased” is the epitaph on the gravestone of James Andrew Wantland. According to the Gospel of Saint Luke, God spoke these words to his son, Jesus, at Jesus’ baptism. Given that James Andrew Wantland–Andrew, he was called–was twelve years old when he died, the choice of epitaph is striking. It does not express the sentiments one usually associates with the untimely death of a child. It suggests satisfaction, rather than regret or loss or sorrow. On the grave of a mature person it would presumably pay tribute to a life of accomplishment and fulfillment; on that of a child it seems almost too much to bear. But Andrew Wantland was the child of Christian Scientists, and the children of Christian Scientists have much to bear.
I know. I am one. Most people who have heard of Christian Science know one thing about it: Christian Scientists do not “believe” in doctors. More accurately, Christian Scientists do not believe in medical science, or what they call “materia medica.” They generally do not accept medical care for themselves, and many do not permit it for their children. They believe they can heal through prayer. Had my brother or sister or I contracted a serious illness or met with a life-threatening accident while we were growing up, we would have been expected to heal ourselves, just as we were expected to heal ourselves of colds, flu, allergies, and bad behavior. That we survived to adulthood was a matter of luck. Andrew Wantland was not so lucky.
In 1992, the year he turned twelve, Andrew had the slightly gawky look of a boy who is growing fast. He had braces on his teeth (Christian Scientists often accept dental care), and his hair was cut short. His ears stuck out a little. He was big for his age and, his mother says, weighed about 140 pounds.
Andrew lived with his father, James Wantland, in the Orange County, California, suburb of La Habra. His grandmother, Ruth Wantland, who lived nearby, and his father were Christian Scientists. Andrew’s parents had divorced in 1984, and he and his sister had lived with their mother, Gayle, who had been granted primary custody, until 1989. That year Gayle remarried. She wanted to move with her children and her new husband to Pennsylvania, but James Wantland wanted his children to stay with him. A judge agreed that the move might prove disruptive, and decided that Andrew and his sister should live with their father during the school year. Gayle Quigley, who had been raised as a Christian Scientist but had left the faith after her remarriage, told the judge that she wanted her children to be provided with mainstream medical care and not just Christian Science treatment. James Wantland indicated to a court-appointed psychologist that he would comply.
Gayle Quigley alleges that sometime during the fall of 1992 Andrew, who had started the seventh grade at Rancho-Starbuck Junior High, began to lose weight and complained of feeling weak. His friends noticed that he had developed a constant cough and that he drank a lot of water. On Sunday, December 20, after Andrew had missed a week of school with what his family called “the flu,” Andrew’s father summoned an ambulance. Andrew was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Jude Medical Center in La Habra.
What happened to Andrew that fall, and particularly over the weekend of his death, is the subject of a civil lawsuit that was filed by his mother in Orange County Superior Court in December of 1993. Much more information will become public if the case goes to trial (it may have already; as this article goes to press, the trial date is set for March 13), but records that have already been released suggest that Andrew’s case is similar to those of a number of other Christian Science children who have died and continue to die of diabetes, ruptured appendixes, measles, diphtheria, blood poisoning, cancer, and other illnesses that are curable or treatable with modern medicine.
Andrew weighed only about 105 pounds at his death and was severely emaciated. The Orange County coroner’s report listed three causes of death and their duration:
A. Multiple system failure/days
B. Diabetic ketoacidosis/months
C. Diabetes mellitus/months
In other words, Andrew Wantland died of diabetes after months of illness.
Quigley’s lawyers allege that Andrew was in a coma for a day or more before his death, though his father and grandmother deny this. His treatment had consisted of the prayers of his father, his grandmother, and a Christian Science “practitioner,” or Church-appointed healer, Ann McCann. It did not include the insulin and fluids that up until a few hours before his death might have saved his life.
The California Penal Code holds that “any person who . . . willfully causes or permits any child to suffer . . . or permits that child to be placed in such a situation that its person or health is endangered, shall be punished by imprisonment.” Within the past decade criminal convictions have been obtained in California against two sets of Christian Science parents who allowed their children to die without medical treatment. At this writing Orange County prosecutors have still not announced their decision whether to file criminal charges against James Wantland, but Gayle Quigley’s suit accuses her former husband of the wrongful death of their son. Though the court has since dismissed the claims against all but James Wantland, the suit originally also named Andrew Wantland’s grandmother, the practitioner, a local Church official, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts, otherwise known as the Mother Church.
The Mother Church was built in 1894, at the behest of Mary Baker Eddy, who was for years known to her followers as Mother. Born a New Hampshire farmer’s daughter in 1821, Eddy suffered all her life from a variety of mysterious and possibly psychosomatic illnesses. In middle age she was an impoverished and eccentric itinerant, abandoned by her husband and family. Believing that she had rediscovered “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing,” she began to teach others to heal themselves, and in 1875 she published a book, Science and Health. Along with the Bible, it became the foundation of Christian Science. In an age before antibiotics and modern sanitation, when mind cures of all kinds were popular, Eddy’s gospel–that people who studied her book and practiced its methods could heal themselves of anything–became wildly popular; sales of Science and Health brought Eddy tremendous fame and fortune. By the time she was seventy, she was one of the most powerful women of her day.
Since Eddy’s death, in 1910, the religion she founded has ceased to be regarded as a notorious and controversial sect and has become quietly respectable. Over the past few decades its membership has been in decline, but though the Church has grown smaller, it has become politically powerful, in large part through the influence of its international newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor. During the 1960s and 1970s a number of Christian Scientists occupied powerful positions in the federal government, as judges and as directors of the FBI and the CIA. H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists, used their influence as top aides in the Nixon White House to shepherd a bill through Congress which extended the copyright of Eddy’s Science and Health (its full title is Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures) for an extra seventy-five years. The bill has, however, since been declared unconstitutional.
In recent decades the Christian Science Church has succeeded in most states in establishing the right of Christian Scientists to deny their children medical treatment. Lobbyists have encouraged state legislatures to enact laws that protect Christian Scientists from prosecution for child abuse or neglect. These statutes provide a religious defense against such civil or criminal charges by stating that parents who rely solely on spiritual treatment in accordance with the beliefs of a recognized church are not considered to have failed to provide adequate care. Some stipulate that religious rights cannot limit a child’s access to medical care in life threatening situations; others do not. But none of them makes clear how parents who eschew medical care for their children can be trusted to distinguish illnesses that are life-threatening from those that are not.
The Church refuses to release any figures on its membership, but in 1989 a Church official told the Los Angeles Times that there were roughly 7,000 Christian Science children in this country. No national studies on the mortality of Christian Scientists have ever been done, but smaller studies have pointed to a high mortality rate among Christian Scientists–for example, among the graduates of Principia, the Christian Science college. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have publicly declared their opposition to the laws that allow Christian Scientists and members of other religious groups to withhold medical care.
The Church rejects “faith healing” as a description of its proceedings, claiming that its “scientific” methods are not reliant on miracles and are nothing less than a rediscovery of the methods of Jesus Christ himself. Victor Westberg, the official spokesman of the Church, says, “We pray differently.” But the dictionary definition of “faith healing” makes no such distinctions. Massage the rhetoric though they will, Christian Scientists practice faith healing as Webster’s defines it: “a method or practice of treating diseases by prayer and exercise of faith in God.” And the “verification” of these healings offered by the Church can be accepted only on faith. The Church’s media guide claims that “Christian Science healing has been verified by medical diagnosis,” and that of the more than 10,000 healings published from 1969 to 1988 in Church periodicals, 2,337 involved healings of conditions that had been medically diagnosed. Diagnosis, however, is not verification of healing, and the fact that a person recovers from an illness does not prove that Christian Science accomplished the recovery. The late Robert Peel, a Christian Science scholar, in his 1987 book Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age, offered expanded anecdotal accounts of Christian Science healing. Some of these recoveries were verified, most of them indirectly and anecdotally, by physicians, but many of the physicians were not identified by name or institution, and only one physician (who withheld his name) expressed in writing his belief that Christian Science could heal. None of the participants were part of any kind of scientific study.
In 1984 Allison Phinney Jr., then the chief editor of the Church’s religious periodicals, wrote in the Christian Science Sentinel that “Christian Science, contrary to recent public misrepresentation, is not positive thinking, mind cure, or an alternative health care system. It is a profoundly Christian denomination, with its priority on the worship of God and the living of a Christian life.” But the Church clearly expects American society to accept its religious practices as an alternative form of health care and to accommodate it in the laws, the schools, and the health care system. Christian Scientists have persuaded many insurance companies to make reimbursements for the “treatment,” or prayers, of Christian Science practitioners. Insurance companies must be happy to cover Chris-tian Scientists: Church members do not smoke or drink; and in an age when even the simplest visit to a doctor costs up to several hundred dollars and a stay in the hospital costs thousands, a Christian Science practitioner charges, on average, somewhere between $10 and $50 for a treatment. The insurance companies that cover Christian Scientists must be aware that people die more cheaply at home, or even in a Christian Science nursing home, without tests, without drugs, without specialists, than they die–or recover–in a hospital.
A Thorn in the Church’s Side
How do people become Christian Scientists? Although the process of joining the Church is simple (the application is free and requires the signatures of two Church members), I know of few instances in which Church members of my generation have converted to the religion as adults. Both of my siblings and some of my fellow Sunday school students have dropped out of the Church. Nearly every Christian Scientist I have known has been involved with the Church from childhood and has a long family connection to it, going back several generations. Although no membership statistics are available, the closing of hundreds of branch churches over the past two decades suggests that attrition is the biggest threat the Church faces: fewer than 100,000 Christian Scientists may now be left in this country. Another 15,000 or so are concentrated in Germany and Great Britain, with others scattered among more than sixty countries. Many members are elderly. All of the Church’s recent controversial activities, including an attempt to start its own cable-television channel, have been inspired by the urgent need to attract new members.
Christian Science is often inherited, and like many inheritances, it comes with family secrets. The religion encourages secrecy. Members of the Church tend to hide their illnesses from one another, even within families. My father has never once in my presence admitted to feeling ill. For some years he read aloud to us from the Bible and Science and Health every morning, but when we saw him reading “the books,” as we called them, at other times, we knew something was wrong. At the branch church my family attended, no one ever acknowledged the obvious illnesses or infirmities of any other members–the man with the goiter, the elderly woman whose arthritis was so bad she could barely walk, the woman with a disfiguring skin condition. The protocol was to pretend that these things simply didn’t exist. The only illnesses that were discussed among church members were the ones that had already been healed through prayer; these were the subject of fervent gratitude during the testimony meetings, held every Wednesday night at every Christian Science church, and in the Church’s two religious periodicals that publish testimonies of healing in every issue.
So when I arrived recently at the Wellesley, Massachusetts, home of Stephen Gottschalk, a historian of the Church, I was filled with the furtive glee that comes with the prospect of airing dirty linen. Gottschalk has a reputation, unusual among Christian Scientists, for being brutally frank about his religion. Finally, here was a Christian Scientist for whom nothing, not even the protracted illness of the Church itself, was unmentionable.
Gottschalk’s candor is undoubtedly the characteristic that has separated him from his former employer. For almost thirteen years Gottschalk worked at Church headquarters, a twenty-eight-story building designed by I. M. Pei, in Boston’s Back Bay. It is located on a fourteen-acre campus that also contains the massive sanctuary of the Mother Church and a huge plaza featuring a 670-foot-long reflecting pool. Gottschalk was a respected member of the Committee on Publication, an office set up by Mary Baker Eddy herself to correct what she called the “impositions” of the press. The committee, which has representatives in every state, monitors everything that is said about the Church and churns out letters to every newspaper, magazine, and TV station that reports something the Church doesn’t like. It attempts to forestall publication of unflattering pieces about the Church by directly pressuring publishers. The committee has also acquired another role: it offers spiritual advice to Christian Science parents who are faced with the serious illness or death of a child. Gottschalk is still an avid and active Christian Scientist, but his inside knowledge of the personalities and practices of the committee has made him one of the most effective enemies of the Church’s current leadership. In fact, probably the only reason he was not excommunicated or threatened with excommunication, as other Church critics have been, is that he is so well known and well respected. In 1973 Gottschalk published the first scholarly work about the Church, The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life. In 1978 he joined the Committee on Publication, and thus found himself frequently responding to attacks on the Church. But on March 1, 1990, Gottschalk and the Church leadership parted ways. At a committee meeting that day he read an open letter addressed to his fellow members, which criticized the Church’s “suppression of serious and responsible dissent.”
The letter did not spell out what he meant by “dissent,” because everyone present knew all too well. Gottschalk had already spoken out a few months earlier, telling U.S. News & World Report that “the church is becoming as worldly as the world it is trying to reach.” Along with many of his fellow committee members, he was alarmed at the amount of money the Church had spent during the late 1980s in frantic efforts to update its image and attract new members by launching shortwave radio and cable-television news services. By 1990 the Church had spent millions and had committed itself to spending millions more on airing a nightly newscast and developing a twenty-four-hour cable-television channel. Jack Hoagland, a Yale educated CIA veteran without experience in television production, who was managing the dizzying proliferation of communications outlets, gutted the widely respected Christian Science Monitor, shifting both money and talent to the television enterprises.
But the profligate spending, and the damage to the reputation of the Church’s beloved Monitor, may not have been the only issues that Gottschalk and others were concerned about in early 1990. Two Christian Science parents, David and Ginger Twitchell, of Hyde Park, a section of Boston, were scheduled to go on trial shortly for involuntary manslaughter in the 1986 death of their two-year-old son, Robyn. (He died of an intestinal blockage that could have been surgically corrected.) The trial, which was taking place “in the very shadow of the Mother Church,” as The New York Times put it, attracted an unprecedented amount of scrutiny and raised troubling questions about the Christian Science way of life and its dangers to children. But Nathan Talbot, who was then the manager of all the Committee on Publication representatives around the world, told the Times that the unpleasant controversy surrounding Robyn’s death had a silver lining: “We are having dozens and dozens and dozens of examples of people coming to our churches and reading rooms who have heard about the Twitchell case and are asking if Christian Science can heal them. Something is happening here, and it’s not what the prosecutors intended.” In fact at the time, the prosecutors got exactly what they intended: the Twitchells were convicted. Even though the conviction was later overturned on appeal, it fixed in the public mind an image of irresponsible Christian Science practices.
Gottschalk felt that the response of the Church to bad publicity was clumsy and heavy-handed, and that it needed to do more than run full-page advertisements in The Boston Globe. The reaction to his March 1 letter was immediate. “Toes haven’t uncurled since,” Gottschalk told me cheerfully. Nathan Talbot was deeply disturbed by the letter. The day after the committee meeting Talbot ordered Gottschalk to go home and pray about his “attitude.” Gottschalk stayed home for a month and then returned to tell Talbot that he could not agree to be silent. They couldn’t reach a compromise, and so a “parting of the ways” occurred. Before the end of the year five of Gottschalk’s associates had resigned or been fired.
Steve Gottschalk is now a free-lance scholar. He works at home, amid an extensive personal library of Christian Science literature. He writes regularly about Christian Science for encyclopedias (including the Encyclopaedia Britannica) and religious periodicals, and his wife, Mary, is a free-lance teacher of German. The Gottschalks have two children of their own–the younger of them in high school–and a foster son.
Gottschalk seems to enjoy being a thorn in the Church’s side. The day I visited him, he took me up to his office and regaled me with tales of the Church’s botched decade-long electronic-media experiment. He is a plump man, with a round, friendly face that seems at odds with his sharp tongue. The enormous financial outlay on radio and television, which almost bankrupted the Church and had to be largely abandoned in 1992, was, he said, “like Napoleon invading Russia.” He also told me the fascinating story of Bliss Knapp, a personality who continues to divide the Church long after his death.
Bliss Knapp and His Book
Bliss Knapp, born in 1877 to Ira Oscar and Flavia Stickney Knapp, met Mary Baker Eddy when he was eleven. His parents were consumed with Christian Science, believing that one of Eddy’s followers had cured Mrs. Knapp of a serious illness. Ira Knapp’s New Hampshire neighbors eventually offered to tar and feather him and ride him out of town on a rail for his proselytizing activities. Inspired either by this threat or by Eddy’s interpretation of a vision he’d had, Knapp moved Bliss and the rest of his family to Boston, where he threw himself into a close inspection of the biblical Book of Revelation. He became known among Christian Scientists as “the Revelation man,” and Eddy named him one of the first directors of the board that would oversee her Church.
Bliss Knapp followed in his father’s footsteps, devoting his life to the religion as a popular traveling lecturer and teacher. In a religion with no preachers or pastors, the Christian Science teacher, who offers “class instruction” to adult students and who maintains a lifelong relationship with his pupils, has an inordinate amount of influence; by most accounts Bliss Knapp was extremely charismatic and influential. At some point after Eddy’s death he began to teach his students that Eddy was none other than the woman described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation: “A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” He also wrote a book, The Destiny of the Mother Church.
Knapp had his book–part family history, part religious speculation–privately printed in 1947 and submitted it to the Christian Science Publishing Society. The board of directors unanimously rejected it, and asked Knapp to retrieve the copy he had sent to the Library of Congress and destroy it, along with all the other printed copies and the plates that had been used to print them. Knapp’s offense was his claim that Mary Baker Eddy was a figure as divine as Jesus. The board did allow that Jesus and Mary Baker Eddy were “the two most transparent sources of spiritual light the world has ever known,” but they took strong exception to Knapp’s assertion that the two were, unlike the rest of us, personally known to God–or, as they put it, “that God is, so to speak, a respecter of persons.” The whole idea, of course, had come from the Revelation man himself, Ira Knapp, but the board warned Bliss to keep his thoughts about Revelation to himself, writing to him in 1948, “You probably do not know that we have in the Archives a letter from Mrs. Eddy dealing definitely with this subject. The statement in her letter, referring to Revelation, follows: “Revelation should never be meddled with. No one but myself is equal to the first lessons in that.” ”
Mary Baker Eddy was nobody’s fool. She wanted her Church to be accepted by society, and she knew, having been raised as a Congregationalist, that the surest way to earn the enmity of the Christian world was to set herself up as a holy figure. But she could be coy in defining herself. She wrote to the New York Herald in 1895, “‘Am I the second Christ?’ Even the question shocks me. What I am is for God to declare in His infinite mercy. As it is, I claim nothing more than what I am, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, and the blessing it has been to mankind which eternity enfolds.” Her ambiguity left the door open for Knapp’s re evaluation.
Knapp spent the rest of his life brooding over the board’s rebuke, and when he died, in 1958, he took revenge in his will. He had married into a wealthy family, and he arranged that the money belonging to him, his wife, and his wife’s sister would be left to the Church on the condition that it publish his book by 1993. If it failed to do so, everything would go to Stanford University and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. By 1990 the combined legacies were worth more than $90 million.
In 1991 the Church had already spent all its unrestricted funds on the new cable channel. After refusing to rise to Knapp’s bait for more than thirty years, the Church published the book. Nothing has ever rocked the foundations of Christian Science as did the publication of Knapp’s Destiny of the Mother Church. The publication preceded by just a few months The Boston Globe’s disclosure, which was news to most Church members, that many millions of dollars had been spent on media expansion and the pension fund had been borrowed from–a matter that, though not illegal, was viewed by many of the faithful as immoral. The publication of Bliss Knapp’s book was seen by many members as a transparently venal attempt to grab a windfall that might impede the Church’s financial collapse. What’s more (and what was even worse to many members), the Church, in granting its imprimatur to Knapp’s beliefs by publishing his book as authorized literature, had tainted the religion’s hard-won status as a Christian faith and handed the enemies of Christian Science all the ammunition they needed to brand it a cult.
A number of Church workers resigned over the publication of Knapp’s book, including all four senior editors of the Church’s religious periodicals, and others were fired when they refused to support the book publicly. Hundreds of branch churches refused to sell it in their reading rooms. A group of members filed suit early last year in Massachusetts against the directors and other Church officials who were responsible both for the book’s publication and for the media ventures, charging them with violating Eddy’s Manual of the Mother Church, which is the Church’s legal governing document. What seemed like a minor theological squabble to outsiders was like an earthquake inside the Church.The directors of the Church–who claim to this day that they did not publish the book for the money- had apparently despised and feared the influence of Bliss Knapp before their about face in 1991. In 1987, while working on a TV documentary about the life of Mary Baker Eddy, Church members asked the actor Robert Duvall–who was raised as a Christian Scientist and graduated from Principia–to provide the narration. When the directors learned of this, they at first refused to approve him, solely because Duvall’s parents had studied Christian Science with Bliss Knapp. (I have heard such students called “Knappers” by other Christian Scientists). Eventually, Gottschalk says, the directors relented and used Duvall when no other suitable narrator could be found.
I could not understand how Bliss Knapp and his book-publication bribery had become an issue so overwhelming to Church members that they considered it more important than what members call “the child cases.” Why, I asked Gottschalk, didn’t the prosecution of Christian Science parents inspire the letter-writing campaigns, the organized protest, and the outcry within the Church that the Knapp book has?
At this Gottschalk grew uncomfortable, sighing and shifting in his chair. It seemed to me that Gottschalk, an involved and affectionate father, would never neglect the well-being of his own children. But he is firmly opposed to any legal restrictions on the right of Christian Science parents to treat their children with prayer alone. Having been a member of the Committee on Publication during many of the recent court cases that have involved children, he is aware of the disturbing facts, but he has never used his considerable knowledge and reputation to protest the Church’s defense of parents’ actions. Instead he has devoted himself to protesting other questionable Church actions. He is a driving force behind a group calling itself The Mailing Fund, which distributes voluminous updates on (among other things) dissenters’ efforts to get the Church to renounce the Knapp book, and he has served as an unpaid consultant to the alternative beneficiaries of the bequest, to whom the court ended up awarding a percentage of the Knapp millions.
After I pressed him about the issue of children in the Church, Gottschalk burst out, “These are the questions that should have been asked! Fine! There’s a role for media in the Church, but the issues that most needed thinking about were largely ignored. There’s been a decade of avoiding the hard questions–How can we develop an honest and constructive dialogue with society? How can ethics and the practice of healing be improved? How can we do better what we say we do? There have been many serious child cases . . .” And then he broke off, unwilling to say anything else on the record.
Apparently, even for Steve Gottschalk, some things are simply unmentionable.
The Suffering of Children
We both knew what they were. The illnesses and deaths of Christian Science children–and adults–are not only frequently senseless, they are often shockingly grotesque. It is heartbreaking to see children in hospital beds, suffering from cancer or leukemia. But ill and frightened though they are, such children at least have adults to minister to their physical and emotional needs with medical care, pain killers, counseling, and empathy. Imagine those children at home, being told by their parents that their illness is not real and that the pain they feel is not a part of the real world–God’s world. Imagine yourself at six or nine or twelve being very sick and hearing your parents read to you Eddy’s definition of man, which begins, “Man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements.” Imagine what happens to a child when her cancer goes untreated for months. And then imagine how it feels. If you can bear to imagine that, you will be imagining what actually happened to Ashley King. Ashley King died in 1988. She was twelve years old, and she had bone cancer. The only child of John King, a real estate executive in Phoenix, Arizona, and his wife, Catherine, both Christian Scientists, she was withdrawn from school in November of 1987 because of “a problem with her leg.” Officials at Cocopah Middle School, in Scottsdale, agreed to arrange for Ashley’s teacher, Tammy Van Denberg, to see her at home.
According to court records, in February of 1988 Van Denberg came to the Kings’ home for a visit but was not allowed to see Ashley. She kept coming, hoping to see the child. Catherine King repeatedly reassured her until, in April, she met Van Denberg at the door and said, “We finally have come to the point where you place God before your own life.” School authorities called Child Protective Services.
On May 5 Detective Edwin Boehm, of the Paradise Valley Police Department, came to the house; he believes himself to have been the first person other than her parents to see Ashley in months. When I reached Boehm recently and asked him if he remembered Ashley King, he said, “You work on a case like that, you don’t forget it.” He said it had taken some time before he “gained entry,” because Catherine King at first refused to answer the door. He described seeing Ashley: “I knew first thing looking at her that she was dying.” He couldn’t see her leg, because “she had a pillow on it under the covers–she was hiding it.” He would eventually tell a grand jury, “She was extremely white, ashen colored–to be specific, death color.” The next day Child Protective Services received a court order allowing them temporary custody of Ashley for the purpose of medical examination.
Judging by photographs taken a year or so before her death, Ashley King was a beautiful girl, with long, straight dark-brown hair and high cheekbones. When she was taken to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, she had a tumor on her right leg that was forty-one inches in circumference.
Her hemoglobin count, according to Paul Baranko, the physician who examined her, was “almost incompatible with life.” Her heart was enlarged from the burden of pumping blood to the tumor, her pulse was twice normal, the cancer had spread to her lungs, and she was in immediate danger of dying from congestive heart failure. Immobilized by the tumor, she had been lying in the same position for months. Her buttocks and genitals were covered with bedsores.
Nurses who testified before the grand jury said that Ashley had told them, “I’m in so much pain” and “You don’t know how I have suffered.” Baranko, who estimated that Ashley would have had a 55 to 60 percent chance of recovery if she had had timely, proper medical treatment, recommended that her leg be amputated to reduce her pain in the time she had remaining; the Kings declined. He later said, “This has to be the most disturbing, depressing case I have ever seen in my twenty five years as a physician.”
Ashley stayed in the hospital for only six days. Officials with Child Protective Services reached an agreement with her parents whereby Ashley would be transferred to Upward View, a Christian Science nursing home. At Upward View, a facility that was not state-licensed and was staffed by Christian Science nurses, who provide only nonmedical care, Ashley lay in bed in conditions that must have been similar to those she had endured at home. When she cried out, a nurse reminded her to remember the feelings of the other “visitors.” She died on June 5, 1988.
Two months later her parents were indicted on charges of child abuse and negligent homicide (the negligent-homicide charges were dropped in a second grand-jury hearing), and Nathan Talbot came to their defense. The Church took the position, as it always has, that children die in hospitals, too. This is true. The difference–that children who die in hospitals have the benefit of something other than the words of Mary Baker Eddy ringing in their ears–does not figure in the Church’s logic.
Seven years later the deputy county attorney who handled the prosecution of the Kings, K. C. Scull, is still angry. “It was a shocking case,” he told me recently. “The tumor–it was absolutely humongous, the size of a watermelon. You’ve just never seen anything like that on a human being. It was absolutely bizarre. I spent a fair amount of time with Nathan Talbot–I flew out to Boston and met with him for a full day, trying to figure out what to do with the case. And I came away from there stunned that Nathan Talbot believed that you can heal anything with this prayerlike procedure. He really takes it literally, and so did these people.”
Scull is particularly scathing about Talbot’s motives for wanting to appear before the grand jury that indicted the Kings: “If there’s a bad guy here, it’s the Church. I really resented a guy like Nathan Talbot coming in. When I saw him, I thought, He doesn’t care about these people; he cares about the Christian Science Church. It’s obviously in serious decline, and he knows it. And he can’t turn it around. He and the Church are doing dangerous things. I got a sense that the Kings were willing to make martyrs of themselves, and I think the Church pushed these people. Nathan Talbot was out here more than once.”
The year 1988 was a busy time for Nathan Talbot. Six separate trials of Christian Scientists charged with child abuse, negligence, or manslaughter were pending that year, and Talbot flew from one trial to the next, speaking softly into the outstretched microphones of the press. He appeared on 60 Minutes and Nightline. A tall, good looking man with an unctuous manner that enrages prosecutors, he never loses control. I have been watching him for several years now, on television and at the Church’s annual national meeting, and I have never seen him excited, not even when members of his own Church are shouting at him. I asked someone who knows Talbot about this preternatural calm, and he told me that when Talbot gets angry, his hands clench and turn white.
In 1989, a year after their indictment, John and Catherine King each pleaded no contest to one charge of reckless endangerment–a misdemeanor in this case. After their sentencing to three years’ probation, the couple held a press conference at which Catherine King displayed a number of large cardboard cutouts of her daughter, which she had made out of enlarged photographs. She told reporters that her daughter had been terrified not by her disease or her pain but by the doctors who examined her: “The only analogy I can use to describe the terror, resistance, and sense of injustice Ashley felt is to compare it to what it must have been like for Anne Frank to be taken to the prison camp in Nazi Germany.” King also said, “I know I was a good mother, and no judge or jury in the country can convince me otherwise.”
“I Am God’s Perfect Child”
My own mother was a late convert to Christian Science. She married a man who had been a Christian Scientist all his life, and, although she did not join the Church for many years, she obediently followed him to church every Sunday and Wednesday. She put on a compliant face and never openly questioned my father’s beliefs, raising us children to be churchgoing, Science and Health–reading “Scientists.” But underneath I know she was a skeptic. In the pocket of an old raincoat in the hall closet she kept a bottle of orange-flavored children’s aspirin. Whenever I seemed to be running a fever, she would surreptitiously extract a couple of tablets and slip them to me, warning me to keep quiet about it.
Memories of childhood are necessarily subjective, and although my parents loved their children and were generally responsible, the power of Christian Science to alter or distort normal parental impulses colored my childhood. The strangeness of our lives did not strike me until I was much older and began to see how other people lived. Before I went to high school, nearly everyone I knew well, except for my mother’s family, was a Christian Scientist. The first inkling I had of how other people felt about my beliefs was when I tried to explain to my high school boyfriend, who was Jewish, what Christian Science was all about. He burst out laughing and said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
I did. When I was little and got carsick, I prayed frantically, saying over and over to myself, “I am God’s perfect child, I am God’s perfect child.” I thought that if I repeated it fast enough and often enough, I would feel better. I was afraid to admit to feeling ill, because even when I was four or five, I knew that my father viewed sickness as a sign of weakness, of sin, of disobedience. When I threw up in the back seat, as I always did, my father would berate me, yelling over his shoulder, “You’re going to have to learn not to do that!” My father was a particularly zealous Christian Scientist, but young Christian Science children, who have little choice but to believe what their parents are telling them, are taught that illness originates in errors in their parents’ and eventually their own thinking. So for them sickness becomes an experience of self-doubt, anxiety, and shame. In Science and Health, Eddy acknowledged that very young children must be treated by their parents (“If the case is that of a young child or an infant, it needs to be met mainly through the parent’s thought”), but she also suggested that young children were capable of taking care of themselves (“Children should be taught the Truth-cure, Christian Science, among their first lessons. . . . This makes Christian Science early available”). The Church’s religious periodicals regularly publish children’s own accounts of illnesses they have been allowed to treat themselves.
Christian Scientists not only don’t like to acknowledge illness; they don’t like to see it. On occasion I was sent to my room from the dinner table for sneezing or coughing; I now know that I was allergic to our cat. Mark Twain, who thought Mary Baker Eddy was a charlatan, was so outraged by the illogic of Christian Science that he wrote a book, Christian Science, about it. It opens with a send-up of the idea, still current among Christian Science practitioners, that they can cure in absentia, without laying eyes on their patients and without even knowing what’s wrong with them.
“This last summer, when I was on my way back to Vienna from the Appetite-Cure in the mountains, I fell over a cliff in the twilight and broke some arms and legs and one thing or another, and by good luck was found by some peasants who had lost an ass, and they carried me to the nearest habitation. . . .
“It was remembered that a lady from Boston was summering in that village, and she was a Christian Science doctor and could cure anything. So she was sent for. It was night by this time, and she could not conveniently come, but sent word that it was no matter, there was no hurry, she would give me “absent treatment” now, and come in the morning; meantime she begged me to make myself tranquil and comfortable and remember that there was nothing the matter with me. I thought there must be some mistake.”
Unfortunately, this scenario is not as improbable as it sounds. In his 1991 memoir, The Unseen Shore: Memories of a Christian Science Childhood, Thomas Simmons describes his mother’s dying in a Christian Science care home: “The Christian Science practitioner who prayed for my mother came infrequently, preferring to offer her prayers by telephone. When she did come, she arrived like a small whirlwind, asking my mother why she was not up and around, why she had not eaten, why she did not get dressed.” In a 1984 editorial that he wrote for the Christian Science Sentinel, Allison Phinney Jr. claimed, “Christian Science is not naively unaware of the human condition. It doesn’t, contrary to deliberately misleading depiction, inculcate blind optimism but fosters independent thought, understanding, and reasonable caring for human needs.” But it doesn’t seem deliberately misleading to me to describe the treatment of Thomas Simmons’s mother–or of Ashley King–as grossly inconsistent with reasonable caring for human needs.
Spalding Gray, who was raised as a Christian Scientist, has also written about the bizarre unflappability that the religion instills in its followers. There are several passages in his book Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen that capture the experience of growing up as a Christian Scientist. This is one of them:
“So one day I was in the bathtub taking a very hot bath. It was a cold day and the radiator was going full blast. I got out of the tub. . . . I hit my head on the sink. . . . When I landed my arm fell against the radiator. I must have been out quite a long time because when I came to, I lifted my arm up and it was like this dripping-rare red roast beef, third-degree burn. Actually it didn’t hurt at all because I was in shock, a steam burn on my finger would have hurt more. I ran downstairs and showed it to my mother and she said, “Put some soap in it, dear, and wrap it in gauze.” She was a Christian Scientist, so she had a distance on those things.
“The next day when I got to school, the burn began to drip through the gauze. I went down to the infirmary, and when the nurse saw it she screamed, “What, you haven’t been to a doctor with this? That’s a third-degree burn. You’ve got to get to a doctor right away.” So I went back home and told my mother what the nurse had said, and my mother said, “Well, it’s your choice, dear. It’s your choice.” ”
That infuriating, smug calm in the face of crisis is part of what makes Christian Science so dangerous. Fixated on their rote readings and prayers, Christian Science parents and practitioners are apt to be unmoved by the visible signs of any disease or accident. I remember the hypnotic voice of the practitioner my mother phoned to talk to me when I was sixteen and had a fever so high that I had been delirious; the practitioner was interested in hearing not how I felt but what I had been studying in Science and Health.
This obliviousness of the reality of pain and suffering has been documented in trial after trial. The testimony of Nancy Calkins, the practitioner who treated Robyn Twitchell, shows that Calkins was obsessed with keeping Robyn’s frantic mother calm moments before Robyn died. “Let’s just be calm here and take this a step at a time . . . we’re seeing good here. Let’s just keep calm,” she told Ginger Twitchell. And after she pointed out to Robyn’s parents that their child had just died in their arms–or, as she put it, “passed”–she was intent not on acknowledging Robyn’s mother’s grief but on moderating and containing it. “Ginger, she just went out of control. She just lost it. She went hysterical. She got devastated. She screamed, ‘No, no. No, no.’ . . . I really had to work so much to know that she wasn’t going to go off the deep end right then and there.”
I am certain it was that same complacency that killed a child I knew, Michael Schram, whose appendix burst when he was twelve. His mother, Betty, whom I remember as a very kind, quiet woman, patient with children, sat calmly on their couch with him the night he died and, apparently just as calmly, sat beside his dead body for two and a half days, praying, she later told the local paper, with “the idea of rousing him.”
I had been at college only a couple of weeks when Michael died, and my mother called to tell me about it, pulling the phone into the laundry room and whispering so that my father couldn’t hear her. My mother sent me newspaper clippings about his death, about a bomb threat to my parents’ church, and about the Seattle prosecutor’s decision not to indict Betty Schram for manslaughter. The year before I left home, I had enraged my father and made my mother miserable by refusing to go to church with them, but she had secretly enjoyed my defiance and seemed to be vicariously taking part in it. I was the youngest, and when I went away to college I was anxious about leaving her in the care of the Science and Health, always kept with the Bible on an old crocheted doily next to the couch. I don’t think I knew what I was afraid of, exactly, but I was right to be worried.
Shortly after I left home, my mother finally joined the Christian Science Church. She told me she wanted to be able to volunteer to watch the babies in the church nursery on Sundays. Three or four years ago, when my mother was in her early sixties, my brother and sister and I began to realize that something was wrong with her. Once a sharp and alert woman, who had taught in the public schools for many years, she seemed to be forgetting how to speak the English language. She couldn’t remember the words for things; she couldn’t keep her pronouns straight. Whenever we spoke to her on the phone, my father, in the background, yelled out the words she couldn’t remember.
When we discussed this among ourselves, my siblings and I could never decide whether we were exaggerating her symptoms, whether they were signs of a mental or a physiological problem or both, whether we should do anything, and if we were to do something, what it would be. We were in the classic bind of the lapsed children of Christian Scientists: we wanted to save our parents from themselves.
Most people think of cults as groups that are populated largely by the young, the unattached, the vulnerable; countless stories have appeared in the popular press of concerned parents’ attempts to “deprogram” their children. But Christian Science turns all the cliches about cults upside down. It is a cult that has become old and respectable, and the children who are lucky enough to grow up and break away from it are faced with the prospect of watching their parents suffer unnecessarily and die before their time.
Spalding Gray has written extensively about his mother, a Christian Scientist who was also a manic-depressive: not a good combination. Although her husband (not a Christian Scientist) did get psychiatric help for her, she eventually succeeded in killing herself. Gray’s autobiographical novel Impossible Vacation captures both the absurdity and the tragedy of the situations that Christian Scientists create for themselves. It describes his doomed attempts to woo his mother back to reality.
“I clearly saw, once again, how like a sky hook that wasn’t there when she needed it, the Christian Science wasn’t working for Mom. It was one of those pull-yourself-up by-your-bootstraps situations, but there were no more bootstraps. One part of the mind has to be the bootstraps for the other part, and all parts of Mom’s mind seemed to have gone.”
Christian Science isn’t working for my mother either. Being a Christian Scientist is an education in what life must have been like in the centuries before medical science discovered antibiotics, penicillin, the art of diagnosis. H. R. Haldeman’s son Peter wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine about his father’s death, in 1993, of an undiagnosed, untreated stomach ailment. Some years ago, when my father collapsed in the middle of the night, we didn’t know what was the matter with him, and we never found out. My mother momentarily believed he was dead. Now we don’t know if my mother has Alzheimer’s disease or some form of treatable, reversible dementia, or whether she is simply severely depressed. We may never know. She has declined all offers of medical care and has chosen to rely on Christian Science. When we ask her how she is, she says, brightly, “Fine!” She has her good days and her bad days, and I still talk to her. But in some important way I feel that I will never truly see her again.
Two Mothers Protest
Not every Christian Science mother has toed the line when faced with a choice between obeying her Church and saving her child. Two women–one who lost a child under Christian Science treatment, and another who saved hers at the last minute with medical care–have attacked the Church’s position on the incompatibility of medicine and prayer, and their campaigns have begun to take a toll.
Rita Swan was a Christian Scientist until she left the Church, in 1977, after her sixteen-month-old son, Matthew, died of bacterial meningitis under Christian Science treatment. She has dogged it ever since, tangling with Nathan Talbot on a number of occasions. Gottschalk, who will not talk on the record about the details of any of the child cases that the committee handled while he worked there, is willing to describe Swan–the most outspoken critic of the Church’s record on children–in vivid terms. At my first meeting with Gottschalk he shook his head when I asked him about her, saying that her view was “too dark, too bitter.” And in a later conversation he said, “Her arguments and statistics are often very twisted. She doesn’t want to admit that healing actually works. She’s really a sad woman.”
“Bitter” and “sad” do not seem inappropriate emotional states given Rita Swan’s experience. She and her husband prayed over their son for days, employing two successive Christian Science practitioners; she listened to the baby screaming and watched him convulsing for hours before he died. After she finally threw off a lifetime of warnings against doctors, disregarded the importuning of the practitioner, and took Matthew to a hospital, she learned that his illness could have been treated with antibiotics.
In 1983 Swan and her husband founded CHILD (Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty), an organization that documents the deaths of children and adults in all religious sects that discourage medical care. Among Christian Science children alone she has found deaths within the past twenty years from meningitis, diabetes, diphtheria, measles, kidney infection, septicemia, cancer, and appendicitis; she has found outbreaks of polio and measles at Christian Science camps and schools; she has interviewed adults who, because of diseases and injuries that went untreated during childhood, became profoundly deaf, or lame, or suffered permanent organ damage.
Finding these cases is not easy. Unless a coroner rules them homicides or criminal charges are filed, the deaths may not be brought to the attention of the media and the public. Swan documented one case of a Christian Science child whose experience may have been very much like that of Ashley King–thirteen-year-old Kris Ann Lewin, who in 1981 died at home of bone cancer after an illness lasting at least a year. But the full story of what happened to Kris Ann Lewin may never be known; Child Protective Services in Pennsylvania, the state where she died, was required to destroy her records because child abuse couldn’t be proved.
Swan has worked relentlessly to publicize the plight of these children and to persuade state legislatures to overturn the religious exemptions in their laws. So far only Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and South Dakota (where five infants in Sioux Falls died in the 1980s during the unattended births of women who belonged to the sect End Time Ministries) have overturned them. Courts have criticized legislatures for maintaining these confusing and misleading exemptions; in 1992 the Florida Supreme Court overturned the child-abuse convictions of two Christian Scientists who had allowed their seven-year-old daughter to die of diabetes after a long, wasting illness, finding that “a person of ordinary intelligence cannot be expected to understand the extent to which reliance on spiritual healing is permitted and the point at which this reliance constitutes a criminal offense. . . . The statutes have created a trap that the legislature should address.” In 1993, a few months after the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the manslaughter convictions of David and Ginger Twitchell, that state’s legislature eliminated its ambiguous religious exemption.
As Rita Swan has found, this is something that state and federal legislators, pressured by lobbyists for the Christian Science Church and fearful of being labeled intolerant, are reluctant to do. In September of last year the Los Angeles Times reported that Church lobbyists, working with two U.S. representatives with connections to Christian Science, (Lamar Smith, of Texas, is a Christian Scientist, and John Porter, of Illinois, was raised as one), managed to ensure the insertion into the year’s largest appropriations bill of a provision blocking the Department of Health and Human Services from denying some financial aid to states that flout its demand that parents provide medical care for children. The Times quoted one lobbyist as saying, “Members [of Congress] see religious freedom and they want to go with religious freedom.” Asked about Swan’s research, which has turned up at least 165 children who have died since 1975 because medical care was withheld for religious reasons, Phil Davis, the head of the Church’s lobbying office in Washington, D.C., described the figure as “a handful.”
Recently Swan has focused her energies on a new method by which to compel the Church and its members to realize that their “radical reliance” on Christian Science when it comes to children is unwise. Swan and her husband filed a civil suit against the Church in the early 1980s, but it was thrown out of court. Last August, however, CHILD and a New Hampshire man, Steven Brown, whose two daughters live with their Christian Scientist mother in Cincinnati, Ohio, filed suit in federal court, asking that Ohio’s religious-exemption law be declared unconstitutional.
Swan has also supported other unprecedented civil suits that have been filed against the Church. In 1993 Douglass Lundman, a divorced father, sued his ex-wife and the Christian Science Church for allowing his eleven-year-old son, Ian, to die of diabetes in 1989. A jury in suburban Minneapolis heard how Ian’s mother had lied to Lundman only a few hours before Ian’s death, when Lundman, who had not even been informed of the gravity of his son’s illness, called and asked to speak to him. She told him Ian was sleeping. He was actually in the diabetic coma from which he never awoke. He had been ill for four days–losing 35 percent of his body weight- and had been vomiting and urinating uncontrollably before falling into the coma. In August of 1993 the jury held Ian’s mother, Kathleen McKown, partly responsible for his death and awarded Lundman damages of more than $5 million, to be paid by McKown, her husband, the Christian Science practitioner who treated Ian, the Christian Science nursing home that provided his nurse, the local representative of the Committee on Publication, and the Church itself. Several days later the jury decided that the Church alone should pay an additional $9 million in punitive damages. The compensatory damages awarded to Douglass Lundman were recently reduced by an appeals court to $1.5 million, but the court declined to lower the punitive damages against the Church. (The Church is appealing the decision.)
The Lundman decision is a staggering blow to the Church–the most damaging it has ever suffered, worse than the millions lost on the media ventures, worse than the near schism caused by the furor over Bliss Knapp’s book. Rita Swan hopes that even if the Church cannot be persuaded that the deaths that have followed when members have chosen to forsake conventional medical attention are unnecessary and immoral, further deaths can be made simply too expensive for the institution or its members to tolerate. The Lundman decision has paved the way for similar civil suits, which could conceivably be filed by any close relative of a child who dies under Christian Science treatment. Andrew Wantland died of diabetes under circumstances much like those surrounding the death of Ian Lundman; Andrew’s mother filed her civil suit after she heard details of the Lundman case.
Suzanne Shepard’s Story
Suzanne Shepard is another waking nightmare for the Church. A graduate of Principia, and a practitioner for thirteen years, Shepard knows in the most intimate way the flimsiness of the Church’s claim that it offers an alternative form of health care. In 1987 she watched her six-year-old daughter, Marilyn, lapse into a coma, and asked herself if she wanted “to be a good Christian Scientist and not have a daughter, or be a bad Christian Scientist and have a daughter.” Against the wishes of her practitioner, and followed by two Christian Science friends who hoped to talk her out of her decision, Shepard drove her daughter to St. Louis Children’s Hospital and saved her life; Marilyn had appendicitis and peritonitis. In the hospital Shepard called her practitioner and asked him to continue praying. She says he refused, telling her to “take Marilyn home, because it was better that she die.” Shepard says, “He said that if she lived, her next healing would be more difficult, because she would not be able to understand Christian Science.”
Shepard came out of this experience convinced that prayer could be combined with medicine, and she began in a small way to try to reform the Church from within. In 1993, after Aaron Witte, the child of one of Shepard’s Christian Science friends, died of diabetes the day before his thirteenth birthday, she took her story to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The experiences with her family and as a practitioner which she described for that newspaper–and subsequently expanded on for me–verge on Grand Guignol. A fourth-generation Christian Scientist, Shepard has seen many members of her family die prematurely and terribly. Her mother died at age fifty of untreated cervical cancer; her stepmother died of a melanoma on her chest which metastasized; her grandfather developed a melanoma on his cheek which ate completely through the flesh. As a teenager, she was paralyzed for several weeks after fracturing two vertebrae in her neck; her right side is still affected because she didn’t go to a doctor until years after the injury. She told me, “You can’t imagine the human torture and neglect of watching someone die without any pain-killers. It’s very abusive and very sad.”
Telling me about her work as a practitioner, Shepard had to stop twice to compose herself. “I know that no one actually died when I was praying for them,” she said. “But I know that people suffered terribly and had malformations as a result of having no medical treatment, especially in the cases of cuts, deep wounds, and burns.” She remembers two children in particular. The parents of a six-year-old girl called to ask her to pray for the child because she had fallen and bruised her arm. The girl herself later called Shepard, crying uncontrollably. Shepard drove to her home and found her alone, lying on the floor with a protruding broken collarbone. Her parents had gone to work and left her on the floor with the telephone. On another occasion a mother called and described her child as having a sore throat. Three days later Shepard visited the child and found that he had swallowed lye and had a hole in his throat.Shepard refused to recant what she had told the Post Dispatch, and in 1993 her local church kicked her out. It is hard to tell which frightens the Church leadership more: the publicity Shepard has generated or the reasonableness of her position. As Church authorities well know, she is not the first to suggest that prayer and medicine can be combined in the Christian Science faith. Mary Baker Eddy was.
As everyone from Mark Twain to the police detective who investigated the case of Ashley King has noticed, Christian Scientists wear eyeglasses, go to dentists, use canes. Mary Baker Eddy suggested that Church members who did not find healing through her methods might go to a doctor. She herself did. Robert Peel, who wrote the definitive biography of Eddy, documented her use of morphine to ease the pain of kidney stones. Bliss Knapp is not the only Christian Scientist to have engaged in revisionism.
A year and a half ago, when I began investigating the controversies discussed in this article, I got in touch with Nathan Talbot and Victor Westberg to ask for their responses–indeed, for any statement about the Church’s position on the treatment of children or on any of the child cases. Talbot refused to comment, saying that he is now devoting himself to the Church’s “healing ministry.” Westberg, whose job, in the words of Mary Baker Eddy, is “to correct in a Christian manner impositions on the public in regard to Christian Science,” turned down all my requests made at that time to interview him, citing the Church’s ongoing litigation. No official directly involved in the Church’s policies on the child cases would agree to be interviewed.
Directors of the Church have given interviews to the press when it suits them. Virginia Harris, the chairwoman of the board, recently completed a twelve-city promotional tour, publicizing the Church’s new trade edition of Science and Health. She has given interviews to The New York Times, among other publications. In 1993 Westberg told me that the directors had “a long-standing policy” against talking to the press, and one of his deputies, Michael Born, when Iasked him insistently about the recently announced decision in the Lundman case, told me, in a tone I would not describe as Christian, that Iwasn’t writing a history book and didn’t need to revisit all this old history. As Steve Gottschalk once said to me, repeating what his friend Robert Peel had told him in reference to the Knapp issue, “The hardest impositions to correct are the ones that are true.”
But when Westberg learned recently that this article was about to be published, he suddenly decided that it was time to talk to me. In a conversation that reminded me at times of one of my old Sunday school classes, Westberg declined again to address any of the child cases specifically and insisted that the Committee on Publication does not involve itself in advising parents on how to treat their children: “When we have parents who do call us, we will refer them to practitioners. . . . When it comes to a parent’s decision, it’s strictly up to the parent.” When Iasked him if the committee ever talked with concerned parents about their legal rights in their own state, he said, “I don’t think we can do that. Their divine rights are what we certainly remind them of–not necessarily their legal rights but their divine rights, and that’s usually sufficient to heal a case.” In contrast to his formerly gruff manner, Westberg was friendly, even avuncular, but his comments brought back to me the feeling that Christian Scientists seem to occupy a universe of their own. When I asked him for the names of any practitioners he knew who had ever followed Eddy’s suggestion in the Manual that they might “consult with an M.D.”on cases they failed to heal, he replied gravely, “One that comes to mind–it would be very difficult to contact him. He has passed on.”
A Child’s Right to Live
Prayer is a resource for millions of people, and medical studies have shown that it can benefit the seriously and even the terminally ill. No one would argue with the Christian Scientist’s right to religious freedom, but the unnecessary deaths of Christian Science children raise pressing questions about the conflict between an adult’s right to practice his or her religion and a child’s right to live.
The dogmatic reaction of the Church in many of these cases is particularly puzzling in light of the reality that most Christian Scientists strike a balance between their faith and their children’s welfare. Christian Scientists willingly obey this country’s laws requiring the presence of a physician or a licensed midwife during childbirth; some have cesarean sections (including the Christian Science mother in Florida who was tried for the death of her daughter). My own recollections and interviews with those currently practicing suggest that some Christian Scientists are willing to have their children vaccinated. Moderate Christian Scientists say, “C.S. stands for Common Sense,” and a number of those I interviewed insisted that the individual parent must decide which children’s illnesses or injuries can or cannot be “handled in Science.” Most Church members support the religious exemptions to the laws but privately question the judgment of those parents who have been compelled to make use of them.
In Great Britain and Canada, countries with no ambiguous religious-exemption laws, Christian Scientists are required, along with everyone else, to provide their children with medical care. But although Christian Scientists in those countries seem to have adapted to that arrangement, it is difficult to find any Christian Scientists in this country who agree that the British system is preferable. Iinterviewed several eminent American Christian Scientists, distinguished in their respective fields, who calmly and thoughtfully discussed with me the troubling issues raised by the child cases and the conduct of the Church in handling them, but when I later attempted to obtain permission to quote them by name on this subject, they became defensive and declined to be quoted.
Some of these same eminent Christian Scientists have publicly criticized the Church’s broadcasting and publishing plans. Why voices like theirs have not been raised within their Church in protest against the agonizing, drawn-out suffering and death endured by Andrew Wantland, Ashley King, and Ian Lundman, among many others, is inexplicable. As it is, if 7,000 children attend Christian Science Sunday schools in this country, then 7,000 children may have nothing standing between themselves and death but the Science and Health and dumb luck.
• This type of indepth report is typical for the Atlantic Monthly. Highly recommended!
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