Rita Swan and Protecting Children from Religious Exemptions

March 9, 2012

Rita Swan is a former Christian Scientist who is now president of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD). She is a fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine. The Last Strawberry is her memoir about the death of her infant son. The story explains how the tragedy prompted her and her husband to leave Christian Science (2010, Hag’s Head Press).

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I didn’t know much about Christian Scientists before seeing Rita Swan talk. I think everything I knew about them I had learned from an episode of Family Guy. Before that, I figured they were actually science-based (oh boy, was I ever wrong about that). What sets them apart from other religions that follow the Bible is that some Christian Scientists use prayer exclusively in all areas of their lives, and use prayer in lieu of things like health care. The website describes their “basic teachings” as the following:

The heart of Christian Science is Love. It’s about feeling God’s goodness. It’s based on the Bible and is explained in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures and other writings by Mary Baker Eddy. It addresses major points about God, good and evil, life and death, sacrament, salvation, and more. Christian Science encourages people to see things from a spiritual perspective, as Jesus taught. Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also…” (John 14:12). Mary Baker Eddy said, “these mighty works are not supernatural, but supremely natural…” (Science and Health, p.xi:14). This can mean resolving difficult challenges with health, relationships, employment, and so on through prayer, although people who practice Christian Science are free to make their own choices about what to think and do in each situation, including health care. [christianscience.com]

I made that last part bold. I think that they caught on to the problem with telling people that they can cure disease through prayer and that they should not seek medical help for themselves or their families is equivalent to advocating for suicide and child neglect or abuse.

https://orlandocon.secularhumanism.org/uploads/speakers/swan-rita_b52302e4-9179-4e9f-a511-90b73d0e00ab_default.jpgRita told us about her family’s loss of their young son, which caused them to leave the Christian Science faith. Before this terrible tragedy, they had been ostrasized for seeking medical attention for themselves. The fear they felt because of the teachings of their church caused them to put trust into the clergy, even while their son experienced horrible illness. After he passed, they decided to work toward preventing the injury and death of children and dependents due to “religious exemptions.”

Laws are in place to prevent abuse and neglect of dependent persons, but there are religious exemptions. You might wonder, as I did, how that is possible. Well, Rita explained to us that the Christian Science Church and other faith-based organizations have lobbied for the right to treat dependents and themselves “spiritually” and with spiritual practitioners instead of doctors. That means that if someone’s child gets sick and the parents hire a “spiritual practitioner” to pray for that child (instead of a doctor), and the child suffers injury or even death, the parents (in some states) will not be charged. Neither will the “practitioner.” Children can die from treatable illness and can suffer severe injury due to lack of preventative care, and because it is done in the name of religion, the state doesn’t prosecute. The state doesn’t even flinch. What makes me even angrier is that people of this faith are paying thousands of dollars to have someone, often in another state, pray for them to get better. These people are told not to see doctors and not to pray for themselves because that might “interfere.”

How is this possible? Have we become so enamored with “religious freedom” that we believe that people are free to kill children because of their faith? I think it is horrible, and so does Rita Swan. She’s been fighting religious exemptions in various states for decades, and is not done yet.

An article in People gives more details about what happened to her son Matthew. I encourage you to read it in order to understand the gravity of Rita Swan’s work and why this has become her mission, but be aware that it is graphic, and really difficult to read.

As far as the extent of religious exemptions from testing, care, and prevention, there is a comprehensive list at the CHILD site. Some of the most unbelievable are these:

  • Seventeen states have religious defenses to felony crimes against children
  • 48 states have religious exemptions from immunizations. Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that require all children to be immunized without exception for religious belief
  • California allows public school teachers to refuse testing for tuberculosis on religious grounds
  • Oregon and Pennsylvania have religious exemptions from bicycle helmets
  • California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio have statutes excusing students with religious objections from studying disease in school
  • Idaho, Iowa, and Ohio have religious defenses to manslaughter
  • West Virginia has religious defenses to murder of a child and child neglect resulting in death
  • Arkansas has a religious defense to capital murder

The list goes on. There are religious exemptions in federal policy, too. Dr. Swan’s work has overturned several religious exemptions in Oregon and is happening in other states, but it’s shocking how widespread the “religious exemptions” are, and how much resistance advocates for the safety of children have had to deal with. Dr. Swan’s talk mentioned heavy lobbying from Christian Scientists, legislators choosing to eliminate only some exemptions over others, and a total lack of accountability on the part of parents and communities that had basically killed children due to not treating their illnesses. One of the towns that she mentioned didn’t even have records of these deaths being caused by neglect or abuse because the paperwork simply looks like a child died of a disease. There is no way to know by looking at records which children died due to lack of medical care. Advocates had to monitor the church’s cemetery in order to see which children, and how many, had died.

When we start getting into discussions about where religious rights end, it’s important to tread carefully because most of us agree that we don’t want to limit freedom. Absolutely no one, however, has the freedom to harm their children or dependents for any reason. The rights of one person end where the wellbeing and safety of children begin. We must choose as a society to protect children above protecting the religious rights of their parents. There can be no exception to standards of physical health and safety for children. Period.

So, thank you, to Rita Swan and her allies for doing this important work. We’re looking forward to hearing more from Dr. Swan and will pass along any information we hear on how to help her with this cause.



#1 DebGod on Saturday March 10, 2012 at 9:39pm

“When we start getting into discussions about where religious rights end, it’s important to tread carefully because most of us agree that we don’t want to limit freedom. Absolutely no one, however, has the freedom to harm their children or dependents for any reason.”

Most agree that the state should remove children from the care of their parents if they’re found to be malnourished/underfed, abused past a certain point (e.g., spanking is fine, anything more is not), or otherwise treated improperly.

The government says that circumcising young boys is allowed.  Tattooing children is not.  Piercing is fine to a point, I guess.  “Circumcising” girls is not fine, I think, in most areas.  Withholding medically-necessary blood transfusions or insulin for religious reasons is legal in some states, but many would argue that it shouldn’t be.  The government can force kids to be vaccinated in a couple of states.

I guess from a legal standpoint (not my area of expertise), the questions should be 1) how do we define unacceptable harm, and 2) when does the social good outweigh an individual’s freedom?  I might be totally wrong here, though.

I think that those who follow this line of thinking would also believe that the government can force parents to administer antibiotics, rather than homeopathic remedies, to fight certain infections.  And circumcision of minors without their express permission should be illegal.  Or am I missing some other criterion that we should use to draw the line?  What do you think?

#2 simon (Guest) on Sunday March 11, 2012 at 4:08am

debgod, by the same criteria spanking is not fine. You wouldn’t hit elderly people who lack capacity, so why is it okay to hit young ones?

Circumcision of minors is generally regarded as medically unnecessary, and causes unneeded risks, mainly excessive bleeding (which is a very common side effect, probably because clotting processes in young babies are not fully developed - hence vitamin K injections). Since minors generally have little understanding of the purpose of the foreskin or the sensations it is likely to produce in adulthood, they are not in a position to give informed consent. Thus circumcision is rationally the same as making other unnecessary cuts into the skin of your child, and I guarantee if you do culturally unapproved incisions into sensitive areas of your child’s anatomy, or start messing around with their genitals social services will take a keen interest.

Most vaccination decisions are straight forward, public health takes precedence over individual liberty where contagious diseases are concerned. That it is even a question shows how quickly we have forgotten the scourge of infectious diseases. The history books and the law books are full of quarantine provisions for TB, Measles, Polio and so on. Many American public schools may choose to exclude pupils who are not fully vaccinated, laws from the past that we fail to implement at the peril of a new generation, and in these litiguous times at the cost of the tax payer.

#3 DebGod on Sunday March 11, 2012 at 5:19pm

Hey Simon, just to clarify, I never say that I think that spanking kids is okay.  I said, “Most agree that the state should remove children from the care of their parents if they’re found to be malnourished/underfed, abused past a certain point (e.g., spanking is fine, anything more is not), or otherwise treated improperly.”

I don’t think that most people (in America, at least) want the government to remove children from the care of their parents if their parents spank them, although maybe I’m wrong about that.

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