My local Freethinkers had a meeting about this topic today and one of the guys shared a few quotes about death and dying, including this one attributed to Albert Einstein:
“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.”
But what if it is the child who has died? What then?
In the past 25 years, hundreds of children are believed to have died in the United States after faith-healing parents forbade medical attention to end their sickness or protect their lives. When minors die from a lack of parental care, it is usually a matter of criminal neglect and is often tried as murder. However, when parents say the neglect was an article of faith, courts routinely hand down lighter sentences. Faithful neglect has not been used as a criminal defense, but the claim is surprisingly effective in achieving more lenient sentencing, in which judges appear to render less unto Caesar and more unto God.
This disparate treatment was evident last month in Wisconsin, a state with an exemption for faith-based neglect under its child abuse laws. Leilani and Dale Neumann were sentenced for allowing their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, to die in 2008 from an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes.
It’s one thing if it’s an accident or some quick virus or sudden onset of one of the worst cancers and there’s barely time to say goodbye let alone get the right drugs into the system that may or may not be beneficial in the long run. But when something easy to treat that people can live with for years winds up killing a child because parents prefer to pray instead? It’s inconceivable to me.
In a nation founded on the free exercise of religion, the legal system struggles with parents who act both criminally and faithfully in the deaths of their children. This paradox has perplexed courts for centuries. One of the earliest prosecutions of such a case occurred in England in the 1800s, when the crown charged followers of a sect known only as the Peculiar People, a name derived from a translation of the phrase “chosen people” from the book of Deuteronomy. They were accused of killing numerous children as a result of faith-healing practices.
Today, the Old Peculiars are largely gone (their faith-healing views thinned their numbers considerably), but many other sects such as Unleavened Bread Ministries have prospered.
And I was reminded today that Canada is not immune to this. I can’t find a link to anything relevant to this country, unfortunately, but it’s been suggested elsewhere that prayer should be covered under health insurance. If you pay someone to pray for you, that person should be reimbursed as a health care provider. Christian Scientists in the States were hoping for it and while the original link has 404’d, Ed Brayton quoted some of that article.
After our meeting, a few of us moved into the lounge to continue discussions and the guy who mentioned this to us wondered how many ways hucksters and scammers could work a system like that. And if the person dies anyway, do you sue the guy you paid to pray at him, or take it out on the doctors? Assuming you even bothered to consult a doctor. And when it comes to the prayer part, do you go generic, or contact someone you can tell is affiliated with a church? Does the insurance company have to sign off on a person’s ability to pray first? Any testimonials of successful interventions in life and death situations?
And during the meeting, a woman who works for a memorial service brought up a study that was done regarding terminal cancer patients and how much life prolonging stuff they asked for in the week leading up to their death. The least religious were more likely to just let go, while the most religious in terms of coping wanted everything that might give them another hour, day or week of added personal suffering and added pain for family members – not just emotionally, but financially as well.
Clinicians need to recognize and be sensitive to the role that religious coping plays in medical decisions at the end of life. They may wish to include other health professionals in discussing these matters. For aggressive care at the end of life to prolong that life at all costs leads to a poorer quality of death and emotional issues for friends and family.
I’ll let the wise artists of xkcd.com have the last word.