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It's freedom vs. responsibility

Religious beliefs go up against parental obligations when it comes to a child in need of medical help.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 1998

TAMPA -- A child is sick and growing sicker. The parents refuse medical help; they believe in the healing power of faith, that God will make their child well. And if the worst should happen, it is God's will for some higher purpose.

The death of 2-year-old Harrison Johnson, the Melbourne boy whose parents belong to a religious group that disdains medical treatment, raises a visceral question: How could anyone watch this horror unfold and not scream for help?

The boy's parents, Kelly and Wylie Johnson, aren't talking to police about what happened during the seven hours after the boy was attacked by yellow jackets in Town 'N Country on Monday. And no one knows if Harrison, stung 435 times according to the Hillsborough County medical examiner, could have survived even if he received prompt treatment.

But the death of the blond boy has elicited a sense of needless loss and raised again the issues of religious freedom versus parental responsibility.

"Skeptics would ask how anybody can believe in a God, a transcendent authority with superior will and superior judgment, but a majority of Americans do believe it," said David Hackett, a professor of religion at the University of Florida.

"We are rational beings. Most rational, common-sense beings would get medical help in a case like this. The question is, at what point do we let go of human reason for our belief in the power of God? In my opinion, people like this are letting go way too early."

Most religions expect members to seek medical help for themselves and their children in any instance of illness or injury. Those that hold a different philosophy include Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses and a variety of small Pentecostal groups.

All but Christian Scientists take the Bible literally and can point to specific passages to support their tenets. Christian Scientists simply believe prayer is the best and most powerful medication available.

Contrary to some concepts, neither Christian Scientists nor Jehovah's Witnesses force their members to turn their backs on medicine.

Officials of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, declined to be interviewed for this story. But according to the church's Web site, "Christian Scientists always have freedom of choice in caring for themselves and their families . . ..

James Pellechia, director of public affairs for Jehovah's Witnesses, said if the Johnson case had happened in a family of his church, medical help would have been sought, "Absolutely."

"We believe in seeking the best medical help for ourselves and our families," Pellechia said. "It's the Christian thing to do."

What Jehovah's Witnesses refuse, based on specific verses from the Apostolic Commands, book of Acts, are blood transfusions in any form. Yet, like Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses do not censure members who choose another course.

"If someone caves under pressure, we offer aid and support, do what we can pastorally to help the family," Pellechia said.

Furthermore, if the law requires a medical procedure such as vaccinations for children before starting school, both churches encourage compliance.

Historically, courts have taken the position that church members 18 and older can make medical decisions for themselves but do not have a right to place minor children at risk, a position shared by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"In a case where parents decide to withhold medical care from a minor too young to articulate a religious preference, as painful a punishment the loss of a child might be, the parents must bear some legal responsibility for the child's death," said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU.

There have been several court cases:

In 1986, a 7-year-old Sarasota girl died of juvenile diabetes. Her parents, Christian Scientists and highly regarded in the community, were convicted by a jury of child abuse and third-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years probation. The state Supreme Court later set the verdict aside on a question of process, not addressing freedom of religion.

A Massachusetts Christian Science couple was convicted in 1990 of involuntary manslaughter in the death of their 2-year-old son from an obstructed bowel, a condition that can be treated with surgery. The courts found they had a duty to seek conventional medical treatment. The state supreme court set aside the verdict on a technicality.

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks there are better solutions than criminal sanctions.

"It's a very old and vexing problem," Caplan said. "In general, the moral standards are clear, parents do not have a right to deny life-preserving treatment from a child for any reason. The courts will order it every time, even to making the child a ward of the court. It isn't an area where there is any ambiguity.

"But instead of prosecution, I'm more in favor of trying to put laws on the books telling parents: We will try to work with you to avoid violating your religious beliefs, but if it is a life-threatening situation, know the state will do what is necessary."

Some emergency medical technicians and doctors are being trained in new ways to discuss the problem with parents.

"They appeal to members of these religions by saying, "Look, it isn't your decision; it's the state's decision, and you are not responsible.' It works with some of them."

Caplan says it also is important to know most parents who refuse medical treatment for a child on religious grounds are not child abusers.

"They love their kids and mourn their loss deeply," he said.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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