- Update. In an unrelated case, a federal court has barred parents in Utah from suing state officials who wanted to force their son to take cancer treatments
- In March 2010, a judge in Oregon sent two parents to prison for the death of their son who didn't respond to "faith healing"
- An incident in Minnesota shows how the law intervenes in other cases
- Many of our rights and privileges, like our constitutional rights to freedom of religion and speech, aren't absolute
- If you have an opinion on the matter, make your voice heard
When Parker Jensen was 12 years old, State of Utah officials filed a lawsuit against his parents. They claimed the parents were guilty of medical neglect in refusing to get Parker chemotherapy treatments for Ewing's sarcoma. According to the officials, several doctors reported that Parker needed the treatments or else he would die.
A judge ordered the state to take custody of Parker, and his parents left Utah with their son. Eventually, the lawsuit against the Jensens was dropped, but the Jensens weren't through. They filed a lawsuit against the state officials for violations of their constitutional rights, such as the right to determine their son's care. A federal trial court in Utah ruled in favor of the officials.
In May 2010, a federal appeals court agreed with the trial court and ruled that the state officials were immune from liability and so the Jensens couldn't sue them for money damages. The court found there wasn't enough proof the officials violated any of the Jensens' constitutional rights. In addition, the court stated that when a child faces immediate and life-threatening dangers, the state has the power and authority to step in to reduce the threat, even if it means interfering with parental decision-making.
Today, Parker is 19 years old and works in a church mission in Chile. According to his parents, he never received chemotherapy treatments and is healthy.
While this case doesn't involve faith healing, it shows that states have control when it comes to trumping parental health choices for their children.
Which is more important: Personal freedoms and liberties, like freedom of religion and the right to make fundamental decisions about raising a child, or the life of that child? Sometimes the law tells us which choice must be made.
In March 2010, a judge in an Oregon state court sent two parents to prison for 16 months. The crime: Criminally negligent homicide, and the victim was their 16 year-old son, Neil. He died from complications stemming from a urinary tract obstruction.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley belong to the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City. Members of the church, including the Beagleys, believe in faith healing. Neil's medical condition normally isn't life-threatening and is easily treated. The Beagleys refused to get him medical attention, though.
Instead, and in keeping with their faith, they prayed for him and rubbed him with anointing oil. Unfortunately, it didn't work. And a jury didn't believe them when they said they did everything they could to save his life. The judge enforced a 10-year-old Oregon law that doesn't recognize "spiritual healing" as a defense in many cases where a victim dies, especially when the victim is a child.
That law, by the way, was passed primarily to stop the deaths of scores of children whose parents belong to the Followers of Christ Church. It may not be working as designed. Just four months before Neil's death, his niece - the Beagleys' granddaughter - died at the age of 16 months.
Her parents relied on faith healing and refused to get her medical treatment for pneumonia and a blood infection, both of which could've been treated easily. A jury refused to convict them of manslaughter.
The Beagleys were present and participating in the faith-healing exercises when their granddaughter died.
Faith-healing and criminal actions aren't limited to Oregon. For example:
- In 2009, a jury convicted a Wisconsin father after his 11-year-old daughter died from lack of medical treatment for diabetes
- A couple in Pennsylvania is charged with manslaughter and awaiting trial for praying instead of getting medical attention for their two-year-old son; he died of pneumonia
And religious belief isn't always at the center of a problem. Remember Danny Hauser? He's the Minnesota teenager who, in 2009, took one treatment for lymphoma and then refused further treatments. A court ultimately ordered him to take the treatments.
It's not clear if he refused treatments because of religious reasons, if it was a personal decision because he didn't like the way the treatments made him feel, or if his parents chose not to seek further treatment. In the end, it doesn't matter - the law stepped in and made the choice for him. And there's a happy ending here. Danny finished treatments late in 2009 and by all reports he's now cancer-free.
Should the law and the courts have the power to trump personal rights and freedoms and step in when lives are in danger? When it comes to children, the consensus seems to be, "Yes." And that makes some sense. Often our rights take a back seat to the greater good.
For example, we have a First Amendment right to freedom of religion and speech, but that doesn't mean we can hold services in the middle of highway during rush hour. Likewise, we can't yell "fire!" in a crowded movie theater when in fact there is no fire.
Is it such a bad thing to protect our children when their parents can't or won't? That's a decision we need to make for ourselves. In a perfect world, it's likely the question would never come up, and unlike in the Beagleys' world, a church's cemetery wouldn't be filled with children. Maybe we need the laws and the courts to step in from time to time.
Let your voice be heard. No matter how you feel about it, you can make a difference. Call or write to your state lawmakers and give them your opinion, and ask them for their opinions. You may be able to make a change to protect your rights and the rights of your family, whichever side of the issue you're on.