When Faith Kills: Christian Healing vs. Medical Science.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.—Dennis and Lorie Nixon’s dedication to their sixteen year-old daughter, Shannon, on her headstone.

I should begin by pointing out that the Nixons of Altoona, Pennsylvania actually lost two children in the early 1990s. When their younger son, Clayton, fell victim to a common ear infection and pleaded to his parents to make the pain stop, the Nixons chose to address the problem with prayer rather than medical science, in keeping with their Christian faith. Clayton’s tiny body eventually succumbed to extreme dehydration and malnutrition and, sadly, he never recovered.

Blair County District Attorney, William Haberstroh, prosecuted Dennis and Lorie on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. After a plea of no contest, the Nixons were sentenced to probation. When asked what he hoped to achieve, Haberstroh answered, “What I want to do is not change their belief, but change their conduct.” But—for better or for worse—as people believe, so shall they act.

So maybe it should have come as no surprise that, when Clayton’s older sister took ill, the Nixon family elected once again to forego secular medicine in favor of prayer and anointment with oil, consistent with scriptural teachings. Shannon’s mood improved at one point, so her parents praised God for His perceived mercy. But the child’s condition quickly worsened and, following another round of intense prayer, Shannon died at the very end of spring, 1995.

According to the autopsy, Shannon had suffered from diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which made her blood more acidic than its surrounding tissues. Although the disease is technically incurable, it can be successfully treated scientifically with regular insulin injections typically costing less than one dollar each. Without the shots, medical experts agree, victims of DKA will surely perish. Thus, the Nixons’ decision to treat their daughter with prayer alone sealed her regrettable fate. “They sacrificed this little girl for their religious beliefs,” Haberstroh concluded after filing a fresh set of criminal charges.

I decided to delve further into the facts of these unfortunate cases when I read about an eerily similar situation in my home state of Wisconsin. By March 26, 2008, the Associated Press had begun to publish reports concerning a little Weston girl—eleven year-old Madeline Neumann—who had been obviously sick for approximately thirty days. Instead of seeking medical care, her parents, Leilani and Dale, chose to pray for Madeline’s recovery. She died from DKA on March 23, Easter Sunday. Eventually, the Neumanns were charged with second-degree reckless homicide. But Marathon County District Attorney, Jill Falstad, decided she could not charge them with child abuse because section 948 of the Wisconsin statutes provides a criminal exemption from that crime for religious parents who choose to treat their afflicted children with nothing but prayer.

The local newspapers referenced a pending case in Oregon as well, where Carl and Raylene Worthington have been charged with manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. Their fifteen-month-old daughter, Ava, became ill with pneumonia and a blood infection, both of which could have been effectively treated with antibiotics. Again, the parents rejected medical science in favor of prayer and, again, on March 2, an innocent child died.

I had no idea how frequently these cases occurred across America—or how bizarre and horrifying the details could be—until I read about literally hundreds of them in a newly published history of this collective national disaster, When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law (Oxford, 2008), written by Shawn Francis Peters, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Typical offenders, Peters instructs, are “intensely religious parents whose lives revolve around the doctrines and practices of small, close-knit Christian churches that ground their doctrines in narrowly literal interpretations of the Bible.” Young victims live anywhere from California to Massachusetts and, incredibly, their parents are seldom prosecuted because thirty-nine of our fifty states provide religious exemptions to child abuse or neglect charges, and nineteen states permit religion-based defenses to felony crimes against children.

One might reasonably presume that faith-healing fatalities had long ago become a vestige of our more primitive past, given relatively recent and profound scientific advances—the germ theory of disease in particular. But, in April of 1998, pediatrician Seth Asser and children’s advocate Rita Swan published an alarming study in the highly respected journal Pediatrics that proved otherwise. Asser and Swan investigated 172 child deaths in American faith-healing churches during a twenty-year period and discovered that the vast majority of them had ensued as a result of religion-based neglect. 140 deaths were caused by conditions for which medical science provided a ninety percent survival rate. Another eighteen resulted from diseases where victims could have expected to endure better than fifty percent of the time.

Such incredible stubbornness, of course, could originate from only one source, beginning with the Old Testament. In Exodus 15:22-27, God purportedly advised the Israelites that it is “the Lord who heals you.” 2 Chronicles 16 warned that Asa was gravely mistaken in seeking assistance from a physician instead of God. In the New Testament, the author(s) of both Mark and Luke characterized doctors as inept buffoons (somewhat ironically, because Luke was supposedly a physician himself), while the author(s) of John depicted Jesus as a healer of unlimited capacity who could even raise Lazarus from the dead. Those themes reverberated throughout the book of Acts, and, finally, in the Epistle of James, Jesus was said to have prescribed prayer and anointment with oil as the ultimate remedy for all bodily afflictions.

Their forebears having wrested religious authority from the miserly grips of Catholic priests, many contemporary Protestant literalists have similarly attempted to seize medicine from the purview of their more educated and highly trained counterparts. Nineteenth-century Pentecostal healer, Carrie Judd Montgomery, condemned medical science to the “sin-stricken world,” and post-World War II-era evangelist, Jack Coe, once admonished Christians that any among them who sought care from a doctor would be seared with the “mark of the beast.” But most famous of all, perhaps, was Oral Roberts, who claimed that “dozens and dozens” of his followers had been dramatically rescued from the grave during his extravagant, fire-and-brimstone services. In 1987, renowned skeptic James Randi challenged Roberts to produce evidence of the alleged miracles, but Roberts responded with nothing better than a spiteful sermon and a few citations to scripture.

Even so, a handful of modern-day Christian prayer-healing apologists have attempted in vain to employ the rational methods of science to verify the success of religious involvement generally, and religious supplication in particular. Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health, for example, alleged that churchgoers tended to be healthier than non-churchgoers. Unfortunately, according to Richard P. Sloan, Columbia University professor of behavioral medicine and author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine (St. Martin’s, 2006), Koenig and others have consistently ignored even the most basic scientific standards, failing to control for obvious “confounders,” including the genetic and behavioral traits of their subjects, and refusing to correct for “multiple comparisons,” thereby ignoring the statistical distinction between “chance” and “real” findings. Indeed, Sloan surmises, what these authors’ studies in fact demonstrate is “how weak the evidence actually is.”

Somewhat more credible are better-controlled evaluations of long-distance intercessory prayer (IP), where numerous patients are randomly and unwittingly assigned to one or more modes of treatment or control groups. Sometimes subjects are cared for in a variety of ways, as occurred in the MANTRA (Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training) and the MANTRA II studies, published by Mitchell Krucoff and others in 2001 and 2005. In the pilot program, 150 acute coronary patients undergoing angioplasty were selected to receive one of five treatments: imagery, stress relaxation, touch therapy, IP, or standard care. The results of MANTRA yielded not one statistically significant difference. Nevertheless, Krucoff elected to initiate a larger evaluation. MANTRA II, designed as the definitive study on IP and released in The Lancet, randomized 748 angioplasty or cardiac catheterization patients to one of four treatments: standard care, IP, MIT (a combination of music, guided imagery, and touch), and IP plus MIT. Again, the outcomes confirmed that prayer had no effect.

Finally, in 2006, Harvard’s Herbert Benson published the $2.4 million Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in The American Heart Journal. One might note that such funding originated from the John Templeton Foundation, the stated goal of which is to advance Christian ideology. In any case, 1802 patients recovering from coronary artery bypass surgery were randomized into one of three groups: those who unknowingly received prayer from three mainstream religious groups, those who unknowingly did not, and those who knew they would receive prayer. Either way, the well-intended prayers had absolutely no effect.

At some level, however, most of us realize that prayer is valuable, if at all, only to the individuals who do the praying, and only at an unconscious, therapeutic level—particularly during trying and desperate times. In other words, prayer-healing is best understood as a self-administered psychological and, in the end, neurobiological phenomenon. But I also suspect that informed common sense will continue to elude the very limited intellectual horizons of religious literalists who will no doubt always believe that worldly knowledge in contradiction of religious dogma—science, most conspicuously—is the enemy of God and the thief of souls. Which is fine, I suppose, at least for them.

But what about their innocent children; and what, if anything, should we do about the statutory exemptions that expressly invite fundamentalist parents to sacrifice their own kids on the pyre of personal religious conviction? In a 1944 decision, Prince v. Massachusetts, the United States Supreme Court addressed that very question. “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves,” wrote Justice Wiley Rutledge. “But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.” Along with all rights—including parenthood and freedom of religion—come enforceable responsibilities. At some point, faith must summon the courage of humility, if not of rationality. And, surely, that point is traversed by some considerable distance when a little boy or girl dies for lack of a doctor’s pill.

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6 thoughts on “When Faith Kills: Christian Healing vs. Medical Science.

  1. Lawrence G.

    Unbelievable. How can this kind of nonsense persist? Well, I guess we know the answer to that. Belief in the absence of evidence.

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  2. DH

    One reaction to these stories is to call for the state or federal government to assume custody of the child and provide medical care. This would occur presumably in direct opposition to the parents’ wishes. Forced government intervention to save children: these situations elicit impassioned arguments from all corners of society and I don’t think we’ve found the right answer yet. Tread lightly when this discussion comes up.

    Also, it’s commonplace among devout Christians to claim divine intervention when a medical treatment or surgical procedure goes well and, in a way, almost dismiss the physicians, surgeons, and healthcare providers as merely being puppets or actors (sometimes even impediments) in the patient’s care. This can insult or unnerve some doctors; they feel their involvement was downplayed and the patient’s recovery was a foregone conclusion had they intervened or not.

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  3. Nina T.

    Well said, DH. Once a person crosses over into faith, any rationalization seems possible. And I don’t blame the physicians for taking offense. Great piece, Kenneth–thanks.

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  4. Michael

    Sad, yes. But a moving piece. Whether the proper response in particular cases is to intervene on behalf of surviving children is debatable, I suppose. But if the child is objectively in danger (clearly), I don’t see that we have any other choice. In any case, at least part of the proper response is prophylactic. We need to get these crazy statutory exemptions repealed. Their existence marks a failed political system where the incentives to get re-elected far outweigh the obvious need to do the right thing.

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