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Spiritual Healing

Sojourners has an interesting piece up on a sixteen-year-old Oregon boy who died because he (or his parents?) refused to get him medical attention. His church is for "faith-healing" rather than modern medicine.


When I first heard of this case I was intrigued by it because the boy, while still a legal minor, is still old enough to be tried as an adult for serious crimes in most states. He's old enough to drive and (at least in NY) he's old enough to legally consent to sex. And in many countries (I'm thinking the UK here but I'm sure there are others) he'd be well within his rights to order a beer from a restaurant. So in many ways society recognizes that he's not so young we have to protect him. That makes the issue of consent more interesting: Is he old enough that we should expect him to stand his ground against his parents' religious beliefs? I know I couldn't have done that in high school, especially if I was part of a subculture like this.

The SoJo post really gets interesting, though, because it looks at the larger issue of religious exemptions. Where do we draw the line? Does scaring kids with talk of brimstone and hell-fire constitut emotional abuse? (More specifically, does this?) What about parents who take their kids to a protest where they might get hurt, or who indoctrinate them with extreme beliefs that lead them to break the law? You don't have to paint this in religious terms; for instance, white supremacists (or black supremacists, etc.), militia movement advocates, and other groups that have nothing to do with organized religion could be seen as harming the children of their members. You alson don't have to go extreme; many atheists would probably see even mainstream evangelical ideas like evolution isn't scientific fact, global warming is a hoax, homosexuality is a choice, feminism is evil, hormonal contraceptions are abortifacients, etc. as being harmful to kids. Where do you draw the line?

My impulse is that we should look at whether the practice does more good than harm even if the belief it's based on isn't true. Say Christianity is wrong and there's no heaven; should we still tolerate kids being scared with talk of hell? I'd say yes, because the only way to avoid that kind of talk is to interfere with both freedom of speech and parental rights to raise up their kids as they believe. Whatever harm kids might suffer is outweighed by those goods. Of course other people adults are also free to try to convince the parents not to subject their kids to such talk, if they believe the talk is harmful and/or wrong. That's how free speech works.

In the Pennsylvania case I linked to above, where youth group members were "kidnapped" and "interrogated," I'd say that's a step too far. The damage done to the students seems more intense. Empathy for missionaries is a good thing, but hatred toward and fear of non-Christians in the developing world - which this exercise seems just as likely to develop - is obviously not good. And even if the goal of this exercise was good, there's surely a better way to teach it than putting kids through this directed of a trauma? It's one thing to hear a preacher talk for an hour about scary things, quite another to be blindfolded, bound, and interrogated. And that's the test that should be applied in a democracy.

It's important to remember, I think, that there's a difference between something being illegal and it being forbidden. I view the law like a contract. If you oppose a law enough that you're willing to go to jail to break it, then that's your right as well. In some situations breaking the law might be the right thing. Take a parent whose child is about to die without a transplant, and the only one available is for sale on the black market. While we might send the dad to jail, would we really say he'd done the wrong thing? But the law can still serve a purpose, by making sure those exceptions are rare. (A functional organ donation system is a good thing, and the less people circumvent it, the less people will need to circumvent it.)

What do you think? Should faith-healing like this be illegal? If so, where do you draw the line? How much accommodation should the law make for religious practice?


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 22nd, 2012 07:54 pm (UTC)
I think 'religious practice' should not be the criteria at all. 'Harm' should be the criteria. I think anyone has a right to do *to themselves* whatever they wish. Want to do without medical treatment? Scourge yourself? Wear hairshirts? Fast for 40 days? Whatever... If you are a legal adult and it harms no one else, go for it.

If it has the potential to do harm to others - not vaccinating children and damaging the herd immunity that keeps kids too young to be vaccinated, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems healthy, or beating babies with sticks - then, no.

If it is *coerced* and could lead to harm or death for others, even by parents who consider it 'love', then also no. If that 16 year old had been separated from his parents and offered treatment, would he have taken it if the options had been explained to him? Heck, according to Christian philosophy, he can take the forbidden treatment, get healthy, and then *repent* and still be saved in the eyes of the lord, right? He'd at least be alive to be 'saved' again.

At what age does (s)he have the *right* to either go against the parental wishes or be compelled follow them? I think the law has to be very careful because that works both ways, of course. If a teen has the right to refuse to follow parental dictates as regards to their health - or other issues - then they can also refuse good, medically sound treatment not just woo-laden quackery. And the difference between medicine and quackery, too, of course is also a continuum.

The "age of consent" for things is a really fuzzy concept as people do not mature at the same rate. There is also good evidence that some portions of the brain that govern rational thought do not actually become available to any human brain until the late teens/early 20s. Of course, no one magically gets rational when they pass a certain milestone. A kid 17 years and 364 days old is not less competent in any rational way to choose a course of action for themselves than a kid on their 18th birthday. Although I think one can say, in general, the average 18 year old is far more competent to make those kinds of decisions than the average 15 year old.

Where does that leave us? Pretty much right where we are, unfortunately, with difficult cases having to be looked at on a case by case basis. Now if we could figure out a more responsive and fair-to-all-parties mechanism to examine the hard cases, that would probably work better than the mish-mash of what we have now. Who does that and how? I have no clue.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 08:33 pm (UTC)
I like your "harm" standard, but even that needs to be fleshed out a little. In many (not all) situations there's a practical benefit to being part of a group, and religion is one of the major foundations of group identity in our culture. In light of that, I'd say that (in principle) you could have a certain amount of "harm" outweighed by the value practicing a certain religion carries with it. That's actually what I was trying to get at when I said the govt should look at whether the practice was beneficial even if the belief motivating it was wrong.

Also, we do tolerate parents harming their child. I mean, science can probably pick out what the healthiest diet for growing kids are; if science proved kids were best off eating a certain amount of animal protein, would we insist that vegan parents feed their kids meat? I think most people would make at least a little space for parents to choose how to raise their kids, even if research showed another approach was better. The fact that those choices are motivated by a religion shouldn't make us more accommodating, but neither should it make us less.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
In some situations breaking the law might be the right thing.

Fwiw, the law (at least in the US) recognizes necessity as a defense, but it's a very high standard and basically requires that breaking the law be the only way to prevent harm. That is, it's not so much that breaking the law is the right thing to do; it's that it's the only option left.

I view the law like a contract.

Interesting analogy, but I think it breaks down if you push just a bit. If the law is a contract, then anyone who breaks it is in breach. The point of a contract is to resolve the expectations of both parties, and one party breaches, the other has to be compensated. So if someone breaks a law (because they absolutely had to), how do you redress the harm to the government (which is the other party here, representative of society at large)?

I think, in the end, the system works (for the most part) partly because the government has discretion not to prosecute people who commit acts that are technically crimes, but with circumstances so extenuating that a jury would never convict. It's smart resource management by the state, and it allows citizens to live in a world where you may still act out in defense of the things you believe in and the people you care about (to an extent).
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )



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