“Every year, tens of thousands of Americans refuse medical care for their children in the name of God,” writes Offit (Vaccinology and Pediatrics/Univ. of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, 2013, etc.) in this exposé.
As recently as 2013, writes the author, “the CDC identified thirty-thousand children whose parents had chosen not to vaccinate them for religious reasons.” Offit examines the beliefs and practices of the Christian Scientists for whom prayer, rather than medicine, is a tenet of their faith as it relates to sickness. He also looks at the Catholic Church, which still sanctions exorcism but not abortion; instances of unsanitary circumcision practices among certain groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City; and faith-healing cults such as the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, which also opposes vaccination. Targeting what he terms “destructive cults” that claim to act in the name of God when they demand that members rely solely on prayer and reject medical treatment, the author clarifies that he is not making a broadside argument against religion. He is sympathetic to parents whose decision to refuse medical treatment leads to a child's death, but he supports the right of the courts to override such decisions in order to protect a child's life. Offit recounts court battles in which medical authorities obtained injunctions allowing them to treat children—e.g., administering necessary blood transfusions. In 1967, a Massachusetts court sentenced a mother to five years of probation because she failed to allow medical treatment for her daughter, who subsequently died as a result. A few years later, Congress passed the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act, which included the right of children to lifesaving medical treatment but exempted parents or guardians who were adhering to “the tenets and practices of a recognized church.”
A thought-provoking discussion of the conflict between society’s right to protect all children and the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.