By Jerry A. Coyne
In America, 43 of the 50 U.S. states confer some type of civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds. If your child has diabetes or a severe infection, and you pray for her instead of giving her insulin or antibiotics, she’ll probably die, but you’re largely off the legal hook. But that immunity doesn’t apply if you injure your child by withholding medical care for nonreligious reasons; for that, you can be prosecuted for neglect, abuse, or even manslaughter. This privileging of religion is dangerous to children—and has killed many of them. In Idaho, for instance, parents are immunized against prosecution for involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide when they let their kids die in the name of faith. In fact, parents there can’t be prosecuted for anything if they rely solely on faith healing.
The Followers of Christ, a Pentacostal and literalistic sect of Christianity that rejects all medical care (including the use of midwives) in favor of prayer, flourishes in both Oregon and Idaho. But those neighboring states differ strongly in how they deal with faith-based treatment. In 2011, Oregon eliminated all religious exemptions from required medical care. In that state, members of faith-healing sects, like the parents of 13-year-old Syble Rossiter,have been convicted of manslaughter for relying on prayer instead of doctors. Rossiter, who had juvenile-onset diabetes, met a particularly horrible death, one completely avoidable had she been given insulin.
But just over the border, in Idaho, parents can expect no prosecution when their children die after an ineffective dose of prayer. That state’s lax “Child Protective Act” explicitly says that “no child whose parent or guardian chooses for such child treatment by prayers through spiritual means alone in lieu of medical treatment shall be deemed for that reason alone to be neglected or lack parental care necessary for his health and well-being.” And because of that provision, children of religious parents die in droves. At least a dozen Idaho children have succumbed in the last four years after being given faith healing rather than medial treatment, but not one parent has been prosecuted. In one Followers of Christ cemetery, 35 percent of the graves are of newborns or minor children, implying a child mortality rate among Followers more than tenfold higher than among Idaho residents as a whole.
Idaho is doing nothing to stop the carnage because, after all, its legislators were the ones who passed that religious-exemption law in 1972. An attempt to rescind the law last year failed: The speaker of the Idaho House wouldn’t even let that bill have a hearing. New legislation is in the works, but it has a slim chance of passing, so children will continue to die with Idaho’s knowledge and complicity.
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