The right to refuse medical treatment based on religious grounds is
recognized in most societies. However, can this right be taken too
far? Should religious beliefs replace medical procedures if the
result may be death of the individual? And most importantly, should a
parent be allowed to obstruct medical personnel when the health and
well being of a child is concerned? These are some questions for you
to consider as you read this article. The purpose of this article is
threefold; firstly, to question the appropriateness of faith healing
as a mutually exclusive alternative to modern medicine. Secondly, to
illustrate a number of case studies wherein children have died from
preventable disease as a direct result of a parent’s religious
beliefs. Thirdly, to expose some of the fundamentalist religious
movements which appear to be connected to a disproportionate number of
faith-related child deaths.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines torture as; 1.infliction of
severe bodily pain, severe physical or mental pain. 2. Subject to
torture; force out of natural position or state; pervert meaning of
Can faith healing be likened to torture? If the individual is of
sound mind and legal age, perhaps not, but what about infants, young
children, or teens? A child who is denied medical treatment will
suffer for very abstract reasons, which in all likelihood he or she
does not understand. They are made to suffer by those they trust, and
have power over them. They cannot seek out treatment themselves, and
are therefore forced to suffer until they are overcome by their
illness. In my opinion, if this is not torture, it is at least an
extreme form of child abuse. A study by the medical journal
Pediatrics (Apr.1998) states that of 172 faith-related child deaths in
the U.S. between 1975 and 1995, the survival rate of 140 of these
children was 90%. Eighteen other children had a survival rate of 50%,
and all but three could have benefited from medical treatment. “Faith
Healers Cause Of Preventable Child Fatalities” American Academy Of
Pediatrics 26 Apr. 1998
The Law: Freedom to Choose Faith Healing
Citizens in North America are guaranteed freedom of religion.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any action by
the American government that restricts “the free exercise of
religion”. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
guarantees that “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
freedom of conscience and religion”. Courts have generally
interpreted the concept of religious freedom very broadly, to include
both religious belief and religious practice, e.g. the personal
freedom to choose prayer and/or religious ritual in place of medical
treatment for a disease or disorder. When faced with a medical
problem, an adult can seek medical attention, use faith healing in
conjunction with medical attention, or pursue no treatment at all, and
let nature takes its course. However, some parents or guardians may
wish to exercise the same options for their children. The result is
sometimes conflict with civil authorities. “Religious Groups That
Reject Medical Treatment In Favor Of Prayer” Ontario Consultants On
religious Tolerance 26 Feb. 2001.
The Bible Reader Fellowship evangelical group, located in California,
avoids medical treatment and fails to record births and deaths as
required by law. (AP On Line, September 30, 1998)
Christian Science Church Parents are unwilling to seek medical help
for their children. Children have and continue to die of cancer,
ruptured appendixes, diphtheria, and other diseases that are curable
with modern medicine. (Fraser, Caroline “Suffering Children And The
Christian Science Church” The Atlantic Monthly, April 1995 )
Members of End Time Ministries have exclusive beliefs in faith
healing. In addition to rejecting medical treatment for children, they
also have unattended childbirth; this absence of medical intervention
is known to be the cause of a significant number of stillborn babies.
“Religious Groups That Reject Medical Treatment In Favor Of Prayer” 26
Feb. 2001. ” Ontario Consultants On Religious Tolerance 26 Feb. 2001.
Followers of Oregon-based Christ Church believe that illness can be
cured by prayer and anointing oil (Ottawa Citizen, June 26, 2000).
Their followers refuse medical treatment for their children, believing
that the ‘laying on hands’ leads to healing. This is a practice
followed many Pentecostal sects. (Van Bliema. David Faith Or Healing”
Time Magazine, Vol. 152, No. 9. August 31, 1998)
Members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation Church believe that God,
inspired by prayers of true believers, will cure the sick. Seeking
medical care is regarded as turning their backs on their faith and God
himself (Larabee, Mark “The Battle Over Faith Healing” The Oregonian,
November 28, 1998 ).
Faith Assembly Members were told to keep illness a secret. This is an
attempt to hide medical information to government authorities, so the
members will not be forced to obtain medical care (Larabee, Mark “The
Battle Over Faith Healing”The Oregonian, November 28, 1998 ).
Followers of the General Assembly Church of The First Born state that
a major component of their belief is the sovereign power of God to
heal (Torkelson, Jean Rocky Mountain News July 28, 2000)).
The Faith Tabernacle Church encourages people to follow what they see
as the will of God. Unfortunately, many feel that medical treatment is
against God’s will. The members use this reasoning to deny medical
treatment to their children. “Religious Groups That Reject Medical
Treatment In Favor Of Prayer” Ontario Consultants On Religious
Tolerance 26 Feb. 2001
Twelve-day-old Carie Sealy died of pneumonia without receiving any
type of medical attention. Her parents, Kenneth and Bonnie Sealy, were
members of the Faith Assembly Church. They believed that if God could
not help, no man could (Larabee, Mark “The Battle Over Faith
Healing” The Oregonian Nov. 28, 1998.).
Newborn infant Warren Reed died of pneumonia and meningitis. His
parents recognized the symptoms, but refused to get medical care. Dr.
Rob Kurtzman stated that the heart defect Warren had at birth is
rarely fatal if medical help is given. His parents Billy and Barbara
Reed are members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born (
Lofholm Nancy Denver Post August 3, 2000)
In Philadelphia, one-year-old Patrick Foster, whose parents were
members of Faith Tabernacle Congregation Church, is another example of
a child suffering due to religious beliefs. Patrick needed help to
lift his head because his body was engulfed by a growth that emerged
from his kidney and attached itself to his liver and heart. The
police came for Patrick. At the hospital, it was discovered that
Patrick had a Wilm’s tumor, a childhood cancer that 90% of the
patients survive if they receive prompt medical treatment.
Fortunately, Patrick lived because of police intervention (Larabee,
Mark “The Battle Over Faith Healing The Oregonian Saturday, November
28 1998 ).
Sonia Hernandez, a one-year old, died of pneumonia. Her parents
Guillermo and Luz Hernandez were members of End Time Ministries. The
girl was blind, deaf and suffered from cerebral palsy. The parents
also believed in faith healing as a substitute for medical attention
(Callahan, Joe Lake City Reporter, September 4, 1992)
In Colorado, 18-month-old Warren Trevette died of suspected congested
heart failure while his parents and church elders of the General
Assembly of the First Born prayed for his cure (Torkelson, Jean Rocky
Mountain News July 28, 2000 ).
In Boston, two-year-old Robyn Twitchell died of peritonitis and a
twisted bowel after a five-day illness that began with his screaming
and vomiting. His parents, members of Christian Science, refused to
get medical treatment for their son.
Two-year-old Justin Barnhart, whose parents were members of the Faith
Tabernacle Church, died of Wilm’s tumor because the parents depended
on prayer and rejected medical help. Medical intervention is
successful in 90% of these cases. (Cult Observer, May/June 1988, p. 6.
From “U.S. Supreme Court Will Be Asked to Review Faith-death
Conviction,” CHILD Newsletter, Spring, 1988, p. 4).
Natili Joy Mudd, a four-year-old from Indiana whose parents were
members of the Faith Assembly Church, died from an eye tumor the size
of her head. Police discovered blood trails on the walls where the
nearly blind girl attempted to go from room to room. The Mudd’s other
5-year-old daughter died after a court ordered operation to remove a
basketball-sized tumor in her stomach (Mark Latrabee “The Battle Over
Faith Healing” The Organian, Nov.28 1998).
In Oregon City, four-year-old Alex Dale Morris received prayers for 46
days before he died. His parents, members of the Followers of Christ
church denied the boy medical attention. His autopsy revealed that
massive infection in his chest had filled one entire side of his chest
with pus. Antibiotics could have saved him. (Van Biema, David ” Faith
Or Healing” Time Magazine August 31, 1998 Vol.152 No. 9)
In Florida, Amy Hermanson, aged 7 died of diabetes. Her parents are
members of the Christian Scientist Faith, and claimed their religious
beliefs kept them from taking her for medical attention. “The
Unacceptable Cost Of Religious Superstition” 26 Feb.
Bo Phillips, 11, died Feb. 23 of diabetes after suffering painful
symptoms for a week. His death could have been prevented with medical
care. His eyes were sunken and his face was yellow. His parents were
members of the Followers of Christ Church. When his father was asked
why he let the boy die, the father said it was his choice (Van Biema,
David “Faith Or Healing” Time Aug. 311998 vol. 152 No9).
In Alberta, Calahan Shippy, age 14, died of diabetes as a result of
his parents refusal to get medical help. His father stated he has the
right to not seek medical help for his eight children. The father is a
member of the Followers of Christ sect. A pathologist said the boy
might have lived if he had received medical help a few hours before he
died (” Alberta Couple Gets Suspended Sentence In Diabetes Death”
Ottawa Citizen, June 26, 2000).
Sixteen-year-old Shannon Nixon died of treatable diabetes
complications. Five years before, her younger brother Clayton died of
an inner-ear infection. Their parents, Lori and Dennis Nixon, were
members of the Faith tabernacle Church and refused to let their
children have medical attention (Blair, Jeffroy “Faith-Healing
Convictions Upheld” Deloit Daily News Apr. 30, 1997).
The children cited in this article are victims. They go through
untold agony and suffering because their parents somehow believe that
faith healing and modern medicine are mutually exclusive. The absence
of medical treatment for these children was not because of economic
hardship or unavailability, but rather a belief system that opts for
prayer instead of medical treatment. As a society, we must ask
ourselves- where are the children’s rights in regard to medical
treatment, and the right to not suffer needlessly? It is ironic that
from a military perspective, it would be regarded as torture for
medical treatment to be withheld by armed forces members. In all
likelihood, the personnel involved would be charged with war crimes or
crimes against humanity, regardless of their excuses.
It is also ironic that many who promote faith healing to such extremes
look down not only other religions, but also on mainstream
Christians. Those who oppose their fundamentalist rhetoric are
labeled as “false believers”. This is one example of numerous
techniques used to promote an “us versus them” mindset among their
followers. This line of thought discourages critical thinking, and is
at the core of most fundamentalist regimes.
What Can Be Done
It is essential that the health and well-being of children take
priority over religious beliefs, especially in cases where those
beliefs promote suffering and medical neglect. Therefore, the
following points may serve as a guideline in establishing this.
Laws should be enacted and enforced that protect children from medical
neglect brought about by the promotion of faith healing.
Declare that faith healing on minors be done only as a supplement to
modern medical treatment.
The parents of children who die as a clear result of medical neglect
should be charged with homicide.
If a child’s death can be clearly linked to medical neglect, and that
neglect can be traced to the caregiver’s religious beliefs, then there
must be consequences for those who actively encouraged and enforced
faith healing. While a child’s safety is ultimately the
responsibility of the parent or guardian, the role of the church,
ministry, cult or sect must also be investigated. Letting your child
die doesn’t come naturally. Someone conditioned the parent to think
this way, and they should be liable as well.
Ministries that use staged faith healing demonstrations as
fund-raising or publicity stunts should be charged with grand larceny.
The most effective way to disrupt organizations that promote child
abuse of this nature is though education and awareness. I encourage
all those who want to help to contact their state or provincial
politicians, medical associations and the media to make their