When an Oregon City couple go on trial this week in the faith-healing death of their son, the case will raise a new wrinkle in Oregon’s debate over religious freedom:
Can a juvenile’s right to obtain medical treatment absolve parents of responsibility for providing health care to a sick child?
Jeff and Marci Beagley are charged with criminally negligent homicide for failing to provide adequate medical care for their 16-year-old son, Neil, who died in June 2008 of an untreated urinary tract blockage.
The Beagleys are also the grandparents of Ava Worthington, whose 2008 death prompted last year’s high-profile trial of Ava’s parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington. Raylene Worthington, who is the Beagleys’ daughter and Neil’s sister, was acquitted in that case. Her husband was convicted of criminal mistreatment.
The entire family belongs to Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church, which shuns medical care in favor of prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands.
Oregon law once allowed parents to avoid homicide charges if they relied solely on spiritual treatment and their child died. The law changed in 1999, mainly due to the church’s long history of children dying from untreated medical conditions.
The Beagley trial will cover some of the same ground as the Worthington case, such as the clash between a parental rights and child-protection laws. But Neil Beagley’s age presents a new challenge for prosecutors.
Under Oregon law, children 15 and older are allowed to obtain medical treatment without parental permission. That fact raises compelling questions for jurors in the Beagley case.
How can teenage children make informed decisions if they’ve never been to a doctor, have no understanding of their condition and have been raised to reject medical treatment? Do children have the right to refuse medical care? How much responsibility do parents have for the health of teenage children?
Church members offer a circular argument that prosecutors must crack.
Since Followers rarely go to doctors, most have no medical records, which makes it hard to document the progression of an illness. Their lack of medical experience, they argue, also leaves them unaware of symptoms that may indicate a medical emergency.
The Worthingtons, for example, said they thought their daughter had a bad cold rather than a life-threatening blood infection. The 15-month-old child also had a growth on her neck that would swell to softball-size lump, but it was never evaluated by a doctor.
If the Beagleys contend that Neil also showed no signs that he was nearing death, prosecutors will be challenged to show otherwise.
• For same-day coverage of the faith-healing trial of Jeff and Marci Beagley, visit oregonlive.com. The Oregonian will provide coverage of the trial once a jury is selected, a process expected to take up to a week. The entire trial could take three weeks or more.