The Washington Post puts generic faith at the heart of a family's fight to save a child

First things first: I have nothing but praise for the dramatic and very human story that unfolds in the recent Washington Post feature that ran under the headline, " ‘God is telling me not to let go’: A mother fights to keep her 2-year-old on life support."

This story focuses on agonizing choices and, in this age of soaring health-care costs, that means dealing with the viewpoints of medical-industry professionals as well as traumatized family members. Readers need to understand both points of view to grasp some of the core issues in this piece.

Also, the story doesn't hide the fact that religious faith is, for the parents of little Israel Stinson, at the heart of their fight to keep him alive. There is quite a bit of religious language in this piece, as there must be.

So what is missing? Well, if this family's faith is at the heart of their story, might readers want to know something about the details of that faith? Maybe even the name of this faith? Are they Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or what? Hold that thought.

Here is the overture for the story:

Two-year-old Israel Stinson was being treated for an asthma attack in an emergency room in Northern California last month when he started to shiver, his lips turning purple and his eyes rolling back in his head.
Over the next day, court records claim, Israel had a hard time breathing, went into cardiac arrest and seemingly slipped into a coma. Soon, his doctors declared him brain-dead and decided that he should be disconnected from the machine that kept his heart beating.
But his parents protested: Discontinuing medical treatment, they argued, would violate their son's right to a life -- and their hope that he might eventually have one.

From the point of view of the parents, they see signs of life and they see reason to hope -- in part because they are looking through the eyes of religious faith. For the family, that looks like this:

Someone tickles him under the arm and tells him it's time to wake up. Then, seconds later, his muscles tense up.
"You make Mommy so excited," his mother says. "I know you're going to come out of this, baby, whenever you're ready -- when God sees ready."
Israel's parents, Nathaniel Stinson and Jonee Fonseca, are fighting Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center in court, requesting a temporary restraining order to keep doctors from discontinuing life support for their son. Their intention is to move him to a medical facility where he can get life-sustaining care.

The problem, of course, is that health care of this kind of expensive. There are limited resources, you see, and the doctors have already checked off all of the scientific criteria that indicate that Israel is brain dead.

The body is alive, the heart is beating and there are muscle reflexes. But from the health-care industry's point of view, brain dead is brain dead and it is science that signs the insurance checks.

This is where the Post includes some details about one advocate on the faith side of this debate:

Paul A. Byrne, a pediatric neonatologist who has written extensively about brain death issues, disagrees. Byrne, a former president of the Catholic Medical Association and president of a faith-based group called Life Guardian Foundation, wrote a court declaration for Fonseca, arguing that there may be hope for her toddler.
"The brain swelling in Israel Stinson began with the cardiorespiratory arrest that occurred more than three weeks ago," he wrote, adding that the boy "may achieve even complete or nearly complete neurological recovery if he is given proper treatment soon." ...
That's why, Israel's parents say, they have filed for a temporary restraining order to keep doctors from removing their son from his ventilator and gastric tube until they can find another hospital to take him.

This brings us to the pivotal moment in the story, in terms of its religious content and the motives of the family. You see, the Israel's parents:

... argue that withdrawing medical treatment violates their constitutional rights -- including freedom of religion.
Attorney Alexandra Snyder, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, said removing Israel from life support goes against the family's religious beliefs.
"They believe that death does not occur until the heart stops beating," Snyder, who initially helped represent Fonseca in court, told The Post.

So what, precisely, are the origins of this very specific doctrinal belief that is at the heart of the family's case?

That could be important, let's say, if they are Pentecostal Christians -- because Pentecostal beliefs in faith healing have been at the heart of previous court decisions linked to parental rights and medical care. I think that it's safe to say that, if the parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, the Post team would have mentioned that. But other faith traditions have specific teachings that might be relevant in this case.

The story makes it sound like this family is, on faith issues, a denomination unto themselves. There is no pastor involved? No local church helping support them? There is no denomination that has a specific set of religious beliefs that back them up?

The story makes it clear that the child was even given a name with deep religious roots. Was that linked to a particular faith tradition?

The bottom line: If religion is at the heart of this fine story -- from the headline to the crucial summary statements of its thesis -- why not give readers one or two sentences that describe this faith and give it a name? In this kind of story, God is, indeed, in the details.

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