“Faith Healing”, medical neglect by another name

In Scientio Veritas is my blog for talking about professional matters, related to science in health and disease, and so forth; and long-time readers (if any!) may know that I don’t like to bring in discussions on the controversial (and – I think – personal to many) issue of religion or religious faith, unless the specific issue impinges upon scientific and/or public health matters. Today, two of my scientist-blogger friends highlighted via social media a particular case of the latter kind, which screams to be commented upon because of its serious public health implications. So I shall endeavor to do so as best as I can.

This tragic case being reported from Pennsylvania involves a religious couple who are members of a Christian fundamentalist church in Northeast Philadelphia, a church that has been documented as delivering sermons that forbid their members from visiting doctors or taking medicines, and advocate reliance upon prayer and “Faith Healing” for treatment of diseases. Their sermons even include a proscription against buying liability, health or any other kind of insurance.

In 2004, the British Medical Journal published a comment from two scientists, upon a paper that attempted to provide a mechanistic explanation in favor of a positive action of prayer upon events. This comment was interesting especially given the qualifications of the authors: one was an internist, philosopher, and Episcopal priest; the other was a professor of physics, with extensive publications on the interface between science and religion. They concluded (a) that current scientific theory has no support for effectual benefit of prayer; (b) that claims to the putative mechanism were non-robust and questionable; and (c) that the evidence of significance in the available data on efficacy of prayer, which is necessary for the acceptance of such a hypothesis in absence of a plausible mechanism, does not exist.

Similar sentiments were expressed in this informative 2007 review and opinion paper in Medscape General Medicine on the subject of “intercessory prayer”, in which the author remarked:

Let’s re-examine, once more, the notion of supplication to a deity, or one of his agents, in which a request is made for a suspension of the known laws of nature. We don’t know all the laws but they do exist, and science is their investigating agent instrument. For any scientist to engage in a study that attempts to understand how something that does not exist in the material world (God or his agents), employs a mechanism that does not exist in the material world (miraculous cure, or prayer-related amelioration of symptoms) is simply working in the wrong field. He or she does not belong in science or one of its main applied areas, which is medicine; theology would be an acceptable alternative.

I highly recommend reading this article, and in addition, these highly illuminating readers’ responses and the author’s reply at the end.

No wonder, then, that so many years later, there is still zero evidence of efficacy of prayer and faith in treatment of any disease the disturbs the physiological homeostasis. In a 2012 article titled Faith healing in paediatrics: what do we know about its relevance to clinical practice? in the journal Child: Care Health and Development, the authors extensively reviewed the current use of “faith healing” in various pediatric disease conditions, including cancer, diabetes, pain, as well as various neurological and psychological conditions; after waffling a bit about the emotionally supportive role of spiritual and religious faith, they made – on basis of available evidence – the most damning of statements regarding faith-healing.

When parents apply religious or cultural beliefs concerning spiritual healing, faith healing or preference for prayer over traditional health care for children, concerns may develop, as significant morbidity, disability or death may result.

The current case of the Pennsylvania parents is, sadly, no different.

Not one, but two, of the sons (aged 2 years and 8 months at death) of this über-religious Pennsylvania couple died, in 2009 and in 2013 respectively, of entirely preventable and treatable bacterial pneumonia, because they would not vaccinate or seek medical help when required, instead choosing to pray over the sick child. After the first child’s death, they were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, receiving probation and a mandate to seek proper professional medical help in case of illness of their children. They did not.

I find it hard to comprehend this level of intellectual blindness. They are adults by age, but they are not responsible parents; despite all their beliefs, they haven’t a clue about sanctity of life. I fault their fundamentalist church for brainwashing them into mindless, unthinking myrmidons, robbing them of empathy, rationality, and human values. I sure as hell am glad that their six surviving children have been placed in foster care and are receiving necessary medical, dental and vision care.

What is even more bone-chilling in this context is the fact that several US states allow religious exemptions from healthcare of children, including preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic measures. Do read the link for the whole list. A sampling of medical situations associated with children for which religious exemptions exist in one state or other reveals:

  • Immunization, the big one.
  • Neonatal testing for innate metabolic disorders.
  • Prophylactic eyedrops to protect neonates against vertically transmitted STDs.
  • Childhood testing for lead levels in body.
  • Testing and treatment for tuberculosis.
  • Neonatal hearing tests.
  • Neonatal administration of Vitamin K to prevent spontaneous hemorrhage in certain conditions.
  • Medical negligence, child abuse, felony crimes against children.

Imagine that! Someone has at some point actually claimed their religion as a valid excuse to withhold medical interventions from and commit crimes against children. As if this were not enough, some states (Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, and West Virginia) allow religious faith as a valid defense to most serious crimes against children, such as manslaughter and murder.

Many US children continue to die in “faith healing” cases — approximately a dozen children each year, according to the Associated Press — unimaginable in a civilized country in the Twenty-first Century CE (See this link for a Huffington Post compilation of reports). Want to know what is even more despicable? After the death of their first child, this Pennsylvania couple was blamed – blamed! – by their pastor for a ‘spiritual lack’ in their lives, which according to the pastor was responsible for the death of the innocent little boy.

Prosecuting the parents for their neglect is only addressing half of this deplorably dismal situation. When would we, as a society, address the root cause, the religious fundamentalism propounded by these churches?

1 Comment

  1. alimar joy

    Why some people their need to believe in faith healing instead to take their children or people sick in hospital that you know they have a chance to cure instead of to go to quack doctor that you will not sure if your sick will cure. Its not bad to believe in God but you have to think what is the good thing to do.

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