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Surprising Science

Faith Healing Needs to be Punishable by Law

Mariah Walton faces a double lung and heart transplant because her parents chose faith healing over medical treatment when she was born.

Many Americans distrust doctors. To them, pharmaceutical company executives are reserved for a special place in hell. There are certainly precedents—longstanding ties between Big Pharma and Big Medicine are no conspiracy. As former pharma PR exec Wendell Potter writes,

If you are among those who believe that the United States has “the best health care system in the world” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—it’s because my fellow spinmeisters and I succeeded brilliantly at what we were paid very well to do with your premium dollars.

Does this make the entire system corrupt? Hardly, even if bad experiences cause us to think otherwise. I’ve had caring and kind doctors, and I’ve been overcharged and underserved by the UCLA medical system. There is no totalitarian dictator overseeing health care. Sadly, it often comes down to luck, combined with other factors, such as where you live and what level of care you can afford.

Is this a reason to eschew medicine altogether? More to the point: Is it fair to not provide children, who have no say in the matter, proper medical attention? Mariah Walton would argue no.

Twenty years ago Walton was born with a congenital heart defect, a treatable condition. Instead of being cared for, the Idaho resident will remain disabled for life due to her parents’ refusal to take her to the doctor. At some point in the near future she will have to undergo a heart and double lung transplant.

The reason? Faith healing.

Since her Mormon parents do not believe in modern medicine, they turned to prayer instead of doctors. And now the longevity of Walton’s life is uncertain due to their decision, which is protected under Idaho’s faith healing law.

The law states that parents are protected from prosecution even if their child dies, as long as they made their decisions according to their faith. Walton, along with her sisters, is attempting to repeal that law—and prosecute her parents in the process.

Republican state senator Lee Heider is not sharing Walton’s pain. He says, “We don’t feel that this is an issue that needs to be addressed in Idaho this year.” While the governor, Butch Otter, questioned faith healing measures, Heider claims the law is already upheld by the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

Otter recently asked for a review of the 1972 law due to a regular occurrence of untimely and unnecessary deaths. In the last five years, eleven minors whose parents belong to the Pentecostal Followers of Christ, a group predominantly based in Idaho and Oregon, have died from preventable conditions.

There is hope if Walton succeeds in getting a hearing. Two Wisconsin parents were found guilty of second-degree reckless homicide after the death of their eleven-year-old daughter, while an Oregon father was convicted for criminal mistreatment after his fifteen-month-old daughter died.

Even states that have faith healing laws are ambiguous at best. According to Robert W Tuttle, professor of law and religion at GWU Law School, says such laws, promoted largely by the Christian Science movement, only apply to ‘recognized’ religions. That means parents with no church affiliation that believe in spiritual healing are more likely to be prosecuted than Walton’s parents, who are Mormon. Tuttle believes many courts apply the ruling broadly to all faiths, though given the resistance against giving Walton a hearing reflects badly on her chances in Idaho.

The foundation of our perceptions and personality—our very nervous system—is shaped and molded by our parents, especially during the first two years of life. Mariah Walton had no say in either her religion or her health. Sadly her parents could not distinguish between the two, falsely believing one overrules the other.

My writing of this article was interrupted when my sixteen-year-old cat, Osiris, developed a fever of 104.7 and stopped eating. Yesterday’s visit to the vet resulted in a round of antibiotics and an IV drip. After a night’s sleep, he woke this morning to a 100-degree temperature, and ate his entire breakfast.

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Here’s why I mention this: in Idaho it is criminal to not provide an animal with proper veterinary care. Failure to comply can result in six months of jail, a fine of up to $5,000, or both. Yet not treating your newborn results in no punishment whatsoever, so long as your faith tells you not to.

To see your newborn daughter suffering from a deadly heart problem and resorting to prayer defies any form of logic or compassion. Prayer made Walton’s parents feel like they were doing something when they weren’t—it assuaged their existential dilemma while their child needlessly suffered. It is here that the law needs to step in so that such tragedies never occur again. 

Image: Jeff T Green / Getty Images

Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.


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