Oregon Baby May Go Blind Because of Faith-Healing Parents


Thirty States Have Religious Shield Laws

Today, 30 states still allow some form of religious shield. Some state laws exempt parents only if their children are faced with a non-life threatening condition or disease.

"Of the more than 2,000 laws dealing with religion can be traced back to Christian Scientists," said Melton. "Other groups have ridden on this. Most of these are First Amendment cases and they go back to Mormon laws in which the court decided that freedom of expression is absolute, but freedom of action is not."

Americans cannot perform ritual murder or do illegal drugs in the name of religion, he said, though there are some highly prescribed exceptions among Native Americans and use of traditional hallucinogens.

But some medical ethicists see problems with eliminating all religious exemptions.

Dr. Ron Koons, an internist and member of the medical ethics committee at the University of California Irvine, admits these stories are "painful" to hear and "no one wants to lose a child."

"The question is, what rights do we have and what rights do they have?" he asked.

"We are outsiders," said Koons. "But the parent who speaks for the child may say, 'If God wants my child to die anf my child will be blind, this is God's will. Our moral conflict is how can we make someone understand our point of view? But to get someone to change their mind, you have to listen to the other side."

His colleague at UC Irvine, Felicia Cohn, who is also bio-ethics director for Kaiser Permanente of Orange County, asks, "What principle are you willing to sacrifice to maintain a child's health?"

Cohn worked with a family who were Jehovah's Witnesses and refused a life-saving blood transfusion for their child, so the hospital got an order.

"Unless there are compelling reasons, a child cannot make choices about their religious beliefs," she said. "The interests of the state in maintaining the child's health overrides their religious preferences."

Sometimes parent are angry and hostile when they lose their rights, but often there is a sense of relief, according to Cohn.

"The parents were very happy the child was well, but they were concerned about their religious community and whether they would be shunned," she said. "We brought in their hospital liaison committee to help."

Working closely with religious communities to learn which treatments are acceptable and which are not can go a long way to helping children and their parents who have strong religious convictions.

"Some are very strict and it still won't be acceptable to the family, but most are more temperate and recognize that if it's done by court order, the parent stood firm," said Cohn. "When you tell a parent their child is sick, most times they will do anything to save their child."

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