17 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington
(Note: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t actually post it for some reason. I’ve no idea why it’s taken me so long. But it’s here now…)
Via Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I came across this story, about a couple whose conviction over the death of their child has been upheld:
A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that dramatically limits legal immunity for parents who turn to God rather than science to heal their children.
Most states, including Wisconsin, created exemptions from child abuse charges for prayer-healing parents in the 1970s to meet federal requirements.
That last sentence is one I find pretty astonishing; and I thought it worth having a dig around to see what I could learn about Wisconsin’s laws in particular.
This one sets the scene:
Practice of Christian Science. No law of this state regulating the practice of medicine and surgery may be construed to interfere with the practice of Christian Science. A person who elects Christian Science treatment in lieu of medical or surgical treatment for the cure of disease may not be compelled to submit to medical or surgical treatment.
I’m puzzled by the particular emphasis here. Does Christian Science have a big following in Wisconsin? Why does it get special mention? Still: I guess that the gist of the law is unobjectionable – it says, in effect, that a person with capacity mayn’t have treatment forced on them, which is fair enough. We might even infer that the person who drafted the law thought Christian Science so daft that it needed to be spelled out explicitly that people invoking it have capacity, whatever the appearance.
Still: electing to refuse treatment is one thing; refusing it on behalf of another is another. It’s at this point that things get a bit weird. This law, for example, states that
[a] determination that abuse or neglect has occurred may not be based solely on the fact that the child’s parent, guardian, or legal custodian in good faith selects and relies on prayer or other religious means for treatment of disease or for remedial care of the child.
And this feeds into the statute that is, as far as I can see, most relevant to the Neumanns’ case, with §6 being particularly noteworthy:
Treatment through prayer. A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing permitted under s. 48.981 (3) (c) 4. or 448.03 (6) in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.
Crikey. I don’t know how that’s justifiable. I mean, it’s one thing to say that families have the right to function as they will, and that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. I’m not sure that they do (morally, I mean, not legally) - but even if they do have such a right, one would have thought that it has limits. It’s not hard to think of lurid examples of where the “right” might run out. But it’s tempting to think that praying instead of seeking treatment that, y’know, has a good evidential basis, might be a straightforward and non-lurid instance of the right petering out. “Treatment by spiritual means” is a bit rum, too.
If you’ve got certain convictions, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up with a second conviction of a quite different sort.
Charles Foster ponders the case here.