Dying for your faith

jesus healsIt must be very difficult to maintain any sense of journalistic objectivity while writing about a family's religious beliefs when it is almost certain that those beliefs are linked to the death of a child. Unless the reporter is an expert on church-state law or has in-depth knowledge of the beliefs of the religious organization that that is involved, how are you supposed to report in a way that explores both sides of the story?

For some reason or another, several stories about these cases have come out in the last week. The first story from The Oregonian seems to be following a long-running series of articles the newspaper has done over the years that has tracked a group that does not seek medical treatment in the event of an illness for religious reasons:

According to Young, the child's parents are members of Followers of Christ, an Oregon City church that practices spiritual healing rather than seeking medical treatment, even when children become gravely ill.

A June 1998 investigation by The Oregonian found that of the 78 children buried in the church's cemetery since 1955, 21 died from treatable diseases. The Followers of Christ came under intense scrutiny in 1997 and 1998, when three children died after their parents denied them basic medical care. One of them, 11-year-old Bo Phillips, had diabetes.

The reporting apparently resulted in a new law that resulted in criminal sanctions in one particular case and blocked a "spiritual healing defense" that has been used in past cases. The challenge with laws like these is that they can outlaw a particular religious faith, or at least a major tenet of a particular faith.

But there is the church-state question: Do parents have a right to refuse life-saving medical treatment to their children because of their beliefs? When does the state have the right to step in and take away parental rights?

The problem with allowing parents to refuse medical care for their children is that the children can't legally consent to refusing medical care. Adults on the other hand have every right in the world to refuse medical care.

The second story comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which takes a look at a similar situation and finds the same set of difficult issues that arise when children die because the faith of the parents prohibits them from seeking medical help. While the story does little to explain the religious perspectives of the groups, it does do an adequate job of explaining the policy conflict:

"At what point do religious beliefs take over for medical help? And the flip of the coin is at what point are the parents responsible for the health and welfare of their children," he said. "These people truly believed their prayer and faith would heal their daughter. They have no question about that."

Police and courts have grappled with such issues for decades. Norman Fost, professor of bioethics and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, said the First Amendment to the Constitution gives citizens the right to practice religion.

"A Jehovah's Witness can refuse life-saving blood transfusion based on their religious belief," he said. "They're protected. But they can't refuse it for their child . . . the First Amendment extends to their own behavior but not their children's."

Reporters should be on their guard for stories like these. It's important to dig beyond the sad details and examine the public policy behind the laws that govern these situations. Journalists have to realize that there are facts that need to be quoted, facts linked to church-state law. There are church-state experts that can be quoted on the legal side of these issues. This is a journalism problem and there are ways for journalists to solve it.

Even more importantly, reporters should look closely at why people maintain these religious beliefs and whether or not they are maintained after the loss of a loved one. What is the real basis for these beliefs, and how common are they?

More questions: Why should the state single out religion? When can authorities step in when there are threats to the life and health of children in other homes? What about children with asthma whose parents are smokers?

The questions go on and on. Quote some people who know the law.

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