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When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law

Shawn Francis Peters

Book Description

Relying on religious traditions that are as old as their faith itself, many devout Christians turn to prayer rather than medicine when their children fall victim to illness or injury. Faith healers claim that their practices are effective in restoring health--more effective, they say, than modern medicine. But, over the past century, hundreds of children have died after being denied the basic medical treatments furnished by physicians because of their parents' intense religious beliefs. The tragic deaths of these youngsters have received intense scrutiny from both the news media and public authorities seeking to protect the health and welfare of children.

When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law is the first book to fully examine the complex web of legal and ethical questions that arise when criminal prosecutions are mounted against parents whose children die as a result of the phenomenon known by experts as "religion-based medical neglect." Do constitutional protections for religious liberty shield parents who fail to provide adequate medical treatment for their sick children? Are parents likewise shielded by state child-neglect faith laws that seem to include exemptions for healing practices? What purpose do prosecutions really serve when it's clear that many deeply religious parents harbor no fear of temporal punishment?

Peters offers a review of important legal cases in both England and America from the 19th century to the present day. He devotes special attention to cases involving Christian Science, the source of many religion-based medical neglect deaths, but also considers cases arising from the refusal of Jehovah's witnesses to allow blood transfusions or inoculations. Individual cases dating back to the mid-19th century illuminate not only the legal issues at stake but also the profound human drama of religion-based medical neglect of children.

Based on a wide array of primary and secondary source materials--among them judicial opinions, trial transcripts, police and medical examiner reports, news accounts, personal interviews, and scholarly studies--this book explores efforts by the legal system to balance judicial protections for the religious liberty of faith-healers against the state's obligation to safeguard the rights of children.


I. "Pointless and Preventable:
     An overview of Religion-Based Medical Neglect of Children, 3

2. "Are Any Among You Sick?":
     The Tradition of Spiritual Healing, 27

3. "Defended by Lord Jehovah":
     The Peculiar People in the British Courts, 47

4. "The Horriblest Thing I Ever Saw":
     Early Religion-Based Neglect Cases in the United States, 67

5. "Does the Science Kill a Person Here and There?":
     Christian Science, Healing, and the Law, 89

6. "The Pain Has No Right to Exist":
     Contemporary Christian Scientists in the Courts, 109

7. "Nightmare Would Not Be Too Strong a Term":
     Life and Death in the Faith Tabernacle, 131

8. "This Ain't Religion":
     Spiritual Healing and Reproductive Rights, 153

9. "God Can't Cure Everyone":
     Spiritual Healing on Trial in Oregon, 175

10. "We Need to Change the Statute":
     The Promise (and limits) of Statutory Reform, 193



"What happens when strong commitments to religious freedom and child protection clash? In this carefully researched and gracefully written book, Shawn Peters tells the tragic stories of children whose parents and spiritual leaders sacrificed them in the name of God. Drawing on a wide range of examples--from Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Pentecostals to the little-known Peculiar People--Peters empathetically shows how the legal system has struggled to adjudicate the conflicting claims of believers and prosecutors."
- Ronald L. Numbers, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"For more than a century, prosecutors have tried to bring to justice those who honestly believed that only God can heal, who rejected any recourse to doctors, and whose children died tragically and painfully as a result. Peters' wonderful narrative is scrupulously fair to both the faithful and the forces of law and medicine. This is a fascinating, thorough, and beautifully written story of the clash between the way of life of a religious minority, and the legal order of the society in which they lived."
- Lawrence Friedman, Stanford University

"As Shawn Peters demonstrates with vivid and disturbing detail, the relationship between religion and child welfare in America is hardly straightforward. Examining the history of how judges and juries have decided between parents' rights to religious freedom and their responsibility for medical neglect of their dead children, Peters argues that such extreme cases may be only the tip of the iceberg of religiously based rejection of medicine in the U.S. Historians of American culture will welcome this carefully balanced and well-researched history, and its portrayal of the enormous respect for religion that pervades the American judicial system."
- Amanda Porterfield, author of Healing in the History of Christianity

Editions (via Amazon):

  Christians, Parenting, Prayer, Suffering and Religion