Freedom of Religion

Pennsylvania court upheld the criminal convictions of two parents for criminal neglect of their 2-year-old son.

Church Law and Tax2001-11-01

Freedom of Religion

Key point.The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment Competent adults have the right to refuse medical treatment on the basis of their religious beliefs, including potentially life-saving treatment. However, they do not have the right to withhold life-saving medical treatment from their minor children.

Pennsylvania court upheld the criminal convictions of two parents for criminal neglect of their 2-year-old son because of their reliance on prayer and divine healing rather than medical care for a life-threatening medical condition. A state child abuse telephone hotline received an anonymous call from a person who stated that a 2-year-old boy (“Andrew”) had a lump protruding from his stomach, was not eating and was not feeling well. As a result of this information, an investigator went to the boy’s home. Andrew appeared lethargic, was wincing, and appeared to be in pain. The investigator asked Andrew’s parents if the child had received medical care. Their response was, “Andrew has never been examined by a doctor because we don’t believe in medical treatment, but rather believe in divine healing. The Lord will heal us.” The investigator obtained a court order requiring Andrew to be admitted to a hospital for treatment. By now the child was unresponsive, gray, and showed no movement. An examining physician determined that Andrew had a “stage 4 Wilm’s tumor,” a type of kidney cancer usually found in children, and that the cancer had spread from the kidney and was growing into other parts of Andrew’s body, including his lungs, liver, and heart. The physician observed that Andrew “had the most extensive Wilm’s tumor of any child I have ever seen.” Andrew was given chemotherapy for a month to shrink the tumor, and then had surgery and radiation to remove it. A long recuperative period followed the surgery, and Andrew remained hospitalized for an additional two months. A treating physician stated that Andrew would have died within 24 hours had he not been brought to the hospital on the day he was admitted.

A police officer with the sex crimes unit interviewed the parents. The father, when asked about his son’s condition, replied, “I can tell you very little. We trust in God for all our healings. Apparently, I don’t know anything as far as what he has.” The father stated that he was against Andrew getting medical treatment “because it’s not in God’s plan.” He knew his son was ill, but he didn’t believe his son would die. He believed God would raise Andrew up and restore him to perfect health. Neither parent was arrested since the police were “unsure that a crime had been committed.” Eventually, they were arrested and charged with criminal neglect. In their defense, the parents called a pastor who testified regarding the religious practices of the church to which they belonged. He explained that members of the church follow the Bible literally and that, following a passage in the Bible, church members do not seek medical care for illnesses but rather pray over and anoint the sick. Another pastor testified that Andrew’s father had called him and told him that Andrew was ill, and asked him to pray for his son, and also asked the pastor to request that the congregation pray for him. The father testified that he knew he had a legal obligation to provide medical care for a dying child. He also admitted that Andrew’s condition had “diminished greatly” in the days prior to his hospitalization. He also admitted that, if Andrew developed the same life-threatening condition again, his “stand would be the same,” that is, he would not seek medical treatment for him, but would “trust in God for his healing, any healing.” After hearing this evidence the jury found both parents guilty of criminal neglect, and each was sentenced to seven years probation.

The parents appealed their convictions, claiming that they did not commit criminal neglect. To the contrary, they prayed for their son and had him anointed. The court rejected the parents’ defense. It observed, “Regardless of the label attached to their course of conduct, their failure to seek medical care constituted a breach of their duties as parents. The law imposes an affirmative duty on parents to seek medical help when the life of a child is threatened, regardless, and in fact despite, their religious beliefs …. [E]very parent … has a duty of care to their child, at the very least, to avert the child’s untimely death …. The validity and sincerity of the religious beliefs of [the parents] were not relevant to the issues presented. They had no choice but to seek help, despite their religious beliefs, when they were faced with a condition which threatened their child’s life.”

Application. This case suggests that parents who rely exclusively on God for the healing of a critically ill child may face criminal charges. Commonwealth v. Foster, 764 A.2d 1076 (Pa. App. 2000).

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