Thursday, 13 May 2010

Faith healing and medical obligation

Because of their religious beliefs, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley of Oregon allowed their 16 year old son die rather than take him to a doctor. His urinary tract obstruction could have been treated easily, but instead he died an unfathomably painful death from heart failure secondary to kidney failure. In March 2010 his parents received 16 months in prison for negligent homicide.

According to The Oregonian, Neil Beagley was taken to the home of his grandmother, Norma Louise Beagley, where more than 60 Followers of Christ Church members held a faith-healing session that included anointing the boy with oil, 'laying on of hands' and praying for a cure (not best evidence treatments subjected to Cochrane review).

The Christian Science Church, who shun medical treatment due to their belief that disease is an illusion caused by sin, had successfully lobbied Oregon legislators to introduce a 'spiritual defense law' which protected parents who 'treated' their children with prayer rather than medicine from charges of first or second degree homicide. However, following a series of deaths, laws were passed in 1999 which required faith healing parents of ill children to seek medical help or risk prosecution.

A US-wide study estimated that 172 children died between 1975 and 1995 due to parental rejection of medical care on religious grounds, not including 78 deaths reported in Oregon from 1955-98 or 12 reported in Idaho from 1980-98 that were probably due to the faith healing practices of the Church of which the Beagleys were members (Seth Asser & Rita Swan, Child Fatalities From Religion-motivated Medical Neglect, 101 Pediatrics 625, 626-629, Apr. 1998).

One of the authors of this study, Rita Swan, writes in a courageous article in The Humanist:
My husband Douglas and I were devout, lifelong Christian Scientists until 1977 when we lost our only son Matthew as a result of our religious beliefs regarding medical care. It's hard for most people to understand this. It's hard for many to grasp how parents could watch a beloved child suffer, yet not call a doctor.
Now, faith-healing is clearly a belief which endangers a child (or adult, for that matter) when it comes to preventing and treating disease, and parents are thus rightly prosecuted for the deaths of their children (though, in many states, they cannot be prosecuted for neglect causing serious injury - there is a faith-based get-out clause due to successful lobbying by the Christian Science church).

Attempting to put aside the moral outrage engendered by parents letting their child's eye tumour become as large as his head, so that he could only get around by supporting his head on the walls (leaving bloody stains from tumour haemorrhage), let us consider a further matter: if people are culpable for injurious effects of their beliefs, then should they be held culpable for death or injury due to other, non-faith-based, beliefs?

The most interesting of these would be anti-vaccination beliefs (particularly anti-MMR, as espoused, for example, by the actor Jim Carrey) leading to measles outbreaks and child deaths. It is difficult to see how rejection of child vaccination differs from faith-healing in terms of parental culpability for injury or death of a child. A parent has a legal responsibility to look after their child's welfare. If they fail to do so, and a child dies or is injured because of it, it matters not whether the neglect resulted from beliefs that are based on 'religous faith'. Should similarly preposterous beliefs rejecting all available evidence for vaccine safety should also qualify?

1 comment:

  1. I'm trying to draft a letter and I had just compared faith healing of this sort with a statement Christopher Cook made in "Praying with a patient constitutes a breach of professional boundaries in psychiatric practice," (BJP 2011, 199:94-98). Rob Poole recommends disallowing a psychiatrist from practicing religion with a patient in a professional setting; but Cook supports it. When asked how he would police potential abuse, he replied thus:

    "I cannot see how prohibiting prayer would prevent either religious abuse or unwitting harm. Rather, guidance is required which clarifies the nature of good practice. I would suggest that prayer with patients, like all good clinical practice, should not exploit their vulnerability, cause them harm or distress, or be judgemental."

    In other words, let the religious practitioner police himself. My reason for immediately thinking of the prayer over medicine faith-healing crowd was that no parent praying for a child wants their child to die. These are not parents who are trying to do harm. They are people who believe they are helping. But “faith,” by definition, requires adherents to adopt beliefs that are not sufficiently justified by evidence and reason—there is always that required “leap” where the justification ended. And this willingness to accept conclusions without sufficient supporting evidence, is a recipe for poor judgment and worse outcomes—even with sincerely good intentions.

    I wonder if the superior education of someone like Cook makes him believe he's immune to such similar bias? And yet at the Royal College of Psychiatrists website, they have a page devoted to "Spirituality and Mental Health":

    It asserts that I am neither "human" nor a "person" when it declares that “spiritual experience” is both “part of being human” and that “every person has their own unique experience of spirituality.” In stretching to make its point, the site even stretches to call reading, having friends, participating in team sports, enjoying the outdoors, and liking art, “spiritual practices.”

    In my view, this page demonstrates that well educated professionals are no less susceptible to religious prejudice and bias, and also the apparent unawareness that accompanies that, in sufficiently indoctrinated individuals. They simply are sliding a religious term in under the radar by giving it a ridiculous and broad definition, and then asserting that it applies to everyone--since (according to them) it includes such things as having a friend or being literate. They honestly can't see the ridiculousness of what they've done.

    And this is why Poole is correct in saying the only safe policy is "no religion" in the professional practice. Saying it can be used, and left to the practitioner's discretion ignores the obvious problem: religious adherents can be demonstrably blind to bias and to the harm they cause.