• Can the state prosecute a mother for manslaughter if her child dies of meningitis after being treated by prayer instead of medical therapy? That was the difficult question before the California Supreme Court in a recent decision. The victim was a four-year-old girl who fell ill with flu-like symptoms and a stiff neck. Consistent with the tenets of her religion, the child’s mother chose to treat the illness with prayer rather than medical care. Members of the mother’s church prayed with the child on two occasions. Nevertheless, the child lost weight, grew disoriented and irritable, and her breathing became heavy and irregular. She died of acute meningitis 17 days after her symptoms first appeared. The child’s mother was charged with involuntary manslaughter, and she moved to dismiss the prosecution on the ground that her conduct was protected by law. Specifically, the mother argued that involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice “in the commission of an unlawful act … or without due caution or circumspection,” and that her child had not died “in the commission of an unlawful act.” She pointed out that the only “unlawful act” for which she could have been charged was the criminal neglect of a child, and that California law exempted “treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone” from the definition of criminal neglect.
The state supreme court rejected the mother’s arguments, concluding that she could be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter. The court reasoned that the exemption of “treatment by spiritual means by prayer alone” from the definition of criminal neglect did not necessarily exempt such treatment from the crime of manslaughter. The court also rejected the mother’s claim that her actions were protected by the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. It observed that the mother’s constitutional rights were outweighed by a “compelling state interest” of “unparalleled significance”—the protection of children. If further noted that “parents may be free to become martyrs themselves … but it does not follow that they are free … to make martyrs of their children.” Walker v. Superior Court, 253 Cal. Rptr. 1 (Cal. 1988).
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