Sunday, February 28, 2016

Manslaughter conviction of faith-healing Oregon couple who didn't take dying premature newborn to hospital is upheld

(Find articles about this topic here, here, and here.)

In 2009, a faith-healing Oregon couple had a baby through a home birth born two months premature. Nine hours later, the baby died due to underdeveloped lungs. Instead of calling 911, the parents chose to pray for their baby, believing that God would save him if it was meant to be. The courts ruled the couple guilty of second-degree manslaughter, and both parents will serve six years in prison.

Then, the couple appealed this conviction, claiming that because they are members of a faith-healing church they were exercising freedom of religion by not bringing the baby to the hospital. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the original court's ruling, with the Judge reiterating that there could have been more done to save the baby. In fact, in testimony, a doctor stated that the boy had a curable disease: staphylococcus pneumonia, and had he received medical care there is a 99% chance he would have survived in a hospital.


The couple argued that they did not call 911 because they were too busy praying for the baby, who was turning blue and unable to breathe. The couple was hoping to receive a religious exemption from laws about child neglect, but this was rejected by the judge, who claimed that child abuse is still abuse regardless of the religious reasons behind it and should be treated the same.

This case reminded me of Wisconsin v. Yoder. In that case, the court ruled that Amish children were permitted to skip the last two years of required schooling to further their Amish values because the Amish culture was well established as a community and there is not a compelling state interest for Amish children specifically to go to the last two years of school.

However, in this case, the court ruled that the obligations of the health and life of a child are more important than the religious obligations of the family. This is a much different case because of the death of the infant: it is a compelling state interest to keep children out of harm's way and protect the child's life. Essentially, while parents are allowed to raise their children in a culturally different way, it was ruled here that they are not allowed to do so if it causes bodily harm or death to the infant. In this case, the life of another human is far more important to the courts than the free exercise of religion. If medical care is necessary, families are required to get medical care for the child regardless of religious beliefs.

Furthermore, this specific church, the Followers of Christ Church, have come under fire recently for other issues regarding the health of children. In fact, two other parents from the church were convicted for failing to seek medical care for their infant daughter because she had a growth in her eye that could have caused blindness. That couple was sentenced to three months in jail.

The couple claimed that they did not know that there was anything wrong with the infant, despite his short breath and light colored skin until it was too late. However, the Supreme Court recounted the minimal steps the couple had taken to save the baby's life.

It's clear in this case that medical treatment would have benefitted, or even saved the baby's life. Also, medical treatment is proven to work much better than praying, and it seems that any parent should know that regardless of religious belief. Western medicine is based on science - it works a lot of the time. Therefore, it is certainly within a state's interest to limit the free exercise of religion when health and lives are at stake.

What's curious to me is that this couple still would not change their actions, and remain steadfast in their beliefs. Both parents testified that they "would not have done anything differently".

I am interested what you think: Where should the court draw the line in these kinds of cases? What is the least extreme circumstance in which action should be taken? Mental or emotional harm, physical harm, or death?

9 comments:

Caroline Vauzelle said...

I am going to play the “Hello I am French” card here. In France, that would literally be impossible for this couple to even think about getting away with such a hideous act by quoting the argument of “free exercise of religion”, for this is clearly child abuse. However, as we have seen in this class, it is not our personal beliefs that count in such cases as much as the limits drawn by the law. I think the First Amendment grants to religious beliefs a legal veracity that makes such claims as the one held by those parents possible. It might be argued that those parents really did deeply believed that praying was indeed the best way to save their child at that moment. The case of the Amish people is apparently acceptable in American society, and this case is classified as child abuse, whereas in France both cases would have gotten a decision going against the parents’ choice.

Rebecca J said...

I think this case brings up a very tricky instance of the belief versus action dichotomy. On one hand, I would argue that the parent's failure to act very well could have been because of their religious beliefs. They did not intend to harm their child, but rather chose to exercise their religious beliefs, thinking that God would save their child if it was meant to be saved. Punishing this family for following their religious beliefs could be seen as a violation of the free exercise clause of the first amendment. On the other hand, many past cases, including Reynolds vs. the United States, have developed the idea that while the government cannot regulate religious belief, it can regulate action. However, in Reynolds, the courts points out that there is an important distinction between acting in a way that is knowingly breaking the law, which Reynolds was doing, versus acting to follow religious beliefs instead of pursuing other options. In fact, in the Reynolds decision, the court cites the case of Regina v. Wagstaff, in which parents did not seek medical help for their child because they believed religious actions would be sufficient. This is very similar to the decision that the Oregon couple made about their newborn child. The religious act of the parents did not intend to break any laws and they did not intend to harm their child. While I do think that the parents should have sought medical help to save their child's life, past cases and interpretations seem to suggest that these parent's should not be punished for their actions.

Hannah L. said...

I believe that human life itself should always trump religious convictions. Although the parents believed that they were doing the right thing by praying for their child to be well, the child ultimately died and the parents are therefore responsible. There are many other steps the parents could have taken. While one parent called 911, the other could have prayed. Both could have prayed from the ambulance or the hospital. Instead, they chose to stay home and let whatever was going to happen to the baby happen. In this case, belief is very distinguishable from action because while a couple can choose to believe that praying is the best course of action, I do not think they should have risked the life of another human being. I think the line is drawn when actions due to religious beliefs can harm another person, and in this case they did.

Thomas M. said...

I agree with the general opinion that the court ruled correctly in this case and that there should not be a religious exemption for child abuse. I did have issue with one part of Rosalie's post where she said, "Medical treatment is proven to work much better than praying, and it seems that any parent should know that regardless of religious belief." Whether or not someone "should" know something is not a valid point. For many practitioners of different faiths, their belief is trumps all else. It is similar to the evolution versus creation debate, in which many people hold their faith beliefs as more concrete than the scientific side. The fact is, these parents thought that they were doing what was best for the child, but obviously that does not excuse the negligence. Rather, it points to a systemic problem where religious sects are being told that prayer will always work over medicine. Medicine does not have to negates one belief, it could even been seen as your prayers being answered.

Samantha Woolford said...

There is no problem with believing in something, the problem comes into play when lives are at stake because of a person's beliefs. I do not believe that these parents meant to cause their child harm and that they really did think that praying would heal their baby. However, there is a compelling state interest to protect children. The parents cannot use religion as an excuse for second-degree manslaughter or child neglect. It does not matter what their religion is, the fact of the matter is that their child has passed and it was due to their negligence. I think they deserve whatever sentence.

Richard Shin said...

This family made a choice to decide whether or not they should take their child to the hospital. The controversial issue here is where the choice of freedom to excercise religion should be stopped. I believe once religion interferes with the safety of another that is when the government should step in. When the parents realized the child needed medical support they should have taken the child to the hospital. Even though the parents believe the power of god was going to save the child they took the risk with the life of a child. This is man slaughter because the parents could of saved the lives of this baby.

Lauren Caldas said...

As we have stated in discussions on many previous cases, there is a difference between belief and action. It is one thing to have a religious belief and putting that belief to action. In this case, the religious belief of praying for the child was put into action and caused the child to die. The well-being of the child is most definitely more important than the religious beliefs of the couple. The line should be drawn in situations like this when the religiously influenced actions of someone negatively affect the general well-being of another person. Whether that be mental or physical well-being or a matter of life or death, there should be intervention when these negative effects are present. I agree with the decision of the court in this case because it all relates back to the difference between belief and action.

Sara G. said...

I do believe that religion is not an excuse for child abuse or neglect and that the parents should get charged with manslaughter.If this couple could get away with this what stops people getting exemptions for committing any other abusive act in the name of religion? When religious practice crosses over into physical harm, the law clearly draws the line. It is illegal to mistreat or harm someone in the name of religion and I see no difference between this situation and one where a parent beats a child. What also stood out to me is that they clearly knew their baby was unhealthy when it turned blue and had trouble breathing. I feel that if the baby showed no obvious signs that it would die, they should get exempt. If when the mother had the baby the couple simply thought the premature baby would be fine like any other baby I wouldn't hold them responsible for its death since it died after only nine hours, but since they could clearly tell it couldn't breathe, they should be held responsible for not seeking medical attention.

Kiriko Masek said...

I agree with the court's decision to not allow for a religious exemption in this scenario. I believe that this case provides prime representation for the potential of a slippery slope to occur. I do believe the parents thought they were doing what was best for their child. However, had this couple been granted religious exemption for what is considered to be second degree manslaughter of an infant, it would have opened up many doors in terms of religious exemption and it would have broadened the criteria of what crimes should be allowed to be granted religious exemption. If the couple had been given religious exemption, future murderers and committers of crime, those of religious orientation and those of not, could easily claim that they chose to do what they did/chose to not call 911 because they wanted to pray to God or a higher being instead of seeking medical or authoritative help.