OREGON CITY, Ore.
When Dr. Seth Asser saw row after row of children’s graves in a small cemetery not far from the end of the historic Oregon Trail, he knew many of these early deaths should not have happened. The children’s parents relied on faith healing, instead of doctors.
The pediatrician published a landmark study concluding many of the deaths could have been prevented if the children had received medical care.
“What struck me was the fact that it was obvious from the expressions on the headstones that the children were loved,” Dr. Asser said. “So it was especially troublesome they were not afforded the care that most parents would give their children.”
His study 10 years ago brought attention to the issue, and yet today three criminal cases — two in Oregon and one in Wisconsin — have revived concerns about exemptions that most states grant to parents who rely on faith healing to treat sick children.
Faith healing has deep roots in American history, and yet it may seem surprising that in the 21st century, children still die because parents choose not to seek medical help from physicians.
State laws across the nation exempt members of religious groups from prosecution if they choose faith healing over science. Dr. Asser and a colleague, Rita Swan, have been trying to get states to repeal such laws, arguing that safety should always come first, no matter what the parents believe.
“We can’t legislate good parenting, but at least we shouldn’t have laws allowing bad parenting,” said Ms. Swan, who now heads the advocacy group Children’s Healthcare.
But the two have been lonely voices, partly because tragedies are rare and partly because legislators are loath to challenge parental rights, especially when they are intertwined with the constitutional right to freedom of religion.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at least 30 states have specific exemption laws on the books.
And HHS also argues that federal law is silent, saying nothing in the amendments to the original 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, can “be construed as establishing a federal requirement that a parent or legal guardian provide any medical service or treatment that is against the religious beliefs of the parent or legal guardian.”
Five states have repealed exemption laws, Ms. Swan said: Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina.
Some states have revised their laws, including Oregon in 1999. After a stormy debate in the Oregon Legislature, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber — a doctor — signed a compromise bill into law that eliminated the Oregon spiritual-healing exemption in some manslaughter and criminal-mistreatment cases.
Many of the exemption laws were enacted in the 1970s, promoted by two top advisers to President Nixon — Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman — and an influential senator, Charles Percy of Illinois, who practiced Christian Science, which embraces a form of faith healing but does not prevent any members from seeking medical care.
“One of the mistakes people make is lumping all these groups together,” said Stephen Lyons, a Boston lawyer who has defended Christian Scientists.
Church leaders also deny their lobbying efforts with state lawmakers across the country have kept the laws on the books. Two pending criminal cases expected to test Oregon’s revised law are against parents belonging to the Followers of Christ Church, the same religious sect that owns the cemetery visited by Dr. Asser in 2001.
Jeffrey and Marci Rae Beagley have been charged with failing to provide adequate medical care, in violation of their duties as parents. Their 16-year-old son, Neil, died in June from complications of a urinary-tract blockage that triggered heart failure. Doctors said a simple procedure could have saved his life.
In the other Oregon case, Carl Brent Worthington and his wife, Raylene, have pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava, who died at home from bacterial pneumonia and a blood infection, conditions the state medical examiner said were treatable.
In a third case, in Wisconsin, Leilani and Dale Neumann face reckless homicide charges in the death of their 11-year-old daughter owing to complications from diabetes.
The Followers of Christ figured prominently in a state legislative battle over the Oregon exemption that began in 1998 with the discovery of the children’s graves, and the death of an 11-year-old member of the sect from complications caused by diabetes.
The political battle ended with revision of the law, but not its repeal.
“These are extremely sensitive cases nationally,” said Josh Marquis, an Oregon district attorney who has been part of the debate over how to balance those conflicting rights. “It’s where faith meets the law.”
In a 1998 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, Dr. Asser and Ms. Swan, herself a former Christian Scientist, documented 172 faith-related child deaths in the U.S. between 1975 and 1995. They found that 140 of the children died from conditions for which survival rates with medical care exceeded 90 percent.
Dr. Asser has tracked a handful of cases that have gotten media attention in the past decade, including deaths in Philadelphia, Massachusetts and California. But he still learns about many of the deaths only through concerned friends or family members who contact him or Ms. Swan.