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Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Faith Healing and Children

Some stories just break your heart on every level, like this tragic one. But most don’t also make you so mad you could spit. Here’s what happened:

Kara Neumann, 11 years old, was getting progressively, inexorably sicker. Despite a powerful thirst and hunger, she seemed to be wasting away to nothing. Over time she was becoming weaker and weaker. Despite nutritious food, she continued to fail. Eventually she was too weak to get out of bed. She became confused, then lethargic, then comatose. Then she died.

Many of you probably recognize the classic symptoms of untreated diabetes and diabetic ketoacidosis. It’s an easy diagnosis to make and, had she been properly diagnosed, she would have been treated with fluids and insulin, and gone on to have a nice long life.

But that is not what happened. Instead, her pious parents – who strongly believed that only God and prayer can and should heal – never brought her to medical attention, even as they profoundly and urgently and continuously and lovingly prayed for her recovery.


Now the state of Wisconsin is prosecuting the parents for “reckless endangerment.” Each .faces up to 25 years in prison. Apparently, the critical legal issue is whether the parents knew it was a “life-threatening” condition (really, how could they not?). Their lawyers contend the state is unjustly violating their right to religious freedom.

To put this in context: Over 300 children (that we know of) have died in the past 25 years because of medical neglect due to parental religious beliefs.


On two occasions during my pediatric training, I cared for Jehovah’s Witness kids who required major surgery. Turns out this was a fairly common event and we knew just what to do. Parents were informed that surgery could only be done with the option of a blood transfusion if needed. They refused. We then went to a local judge and got a court order / permission to transfuse blood if need be. Surgery went ahead.

I have to say, on both occasions I got the impression the parents were relieved to cede authority to us to save their child’s life. They didn’t have to violate their religious percepts – after all, Dr. P was the one who would go to hell if blood products were administered! But neither did they have to worry that their child would die for want of blood.


What’s your take on this? Isn’t this a free country? Wasn’t it founded on religious freedom? How can we then deny parents their right to practice their religion in the way they choose? How dare the state intervene into the lives of families in such an intrusive way?

Here’s my view. As an adult you have the right to believe anything you want and, as long as those beliefs don’t impinge on the rights or well-being of others, you have the right to freely act on those beliefs. You can act against your own self interest, even do things that are clearly self-destructive. That is your right, boneheaded as you might be.

But you do not have the right to use those values and beliefs to harm a child – especially your own – who cannot decide for herself. You do not, for example, have the right to impose cruel physical punishment, even if your beliefs dictate you should do so. You do not have the right to have your child avoid all educational programs in the hope of isolating her from the temptations and misguided beliefs of this wicked world.

And, most assuredly, you do not have the right to endanger her health and well-being and very life to conform with your beliefs.


In short, as a parent you have the right to make a martyr of yourself, but you do not have the right to make martyrs of your kids.

I feel bad for Kara’s parents. I really do. They have lost a child – the very worst thing that can happen in this life, At the same time, if I’m honest, I want to throttle them for their reckless, stubborn abandonment of their ever weakening child. Jail or no, now they will have to live with the awful knowledge that her death was their fault.


Read the entire New York Times‘ article, Trials for Parents Who Chose Faith Over Medicine.

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 12:03 pm


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