You Can Have Your Religion, But Not Your Children

True to the banner under which it was published, last week’s Fightin Words piece defending a Wisconsin couple who were sentenced to jail time for the 2008 death of their daughter, who died of an undiagnosed case of diabetes while they prayed for her recovery rather than seek outside medical care, has provoked strong reaction everywhere it was posted. The overwhelming sentiment from across the political spectrum is these parents committed a crime by not calling 911 “as [their daughter] became too weak to speak, eat, drink or walk.” As I have struggled to keep up with the response amidst my other activities, it has occurred to me this story and others like it highlight a shift in mainstream thought regarding parental rights and the right to life. This is not a recent shift; it has been gradual. But it is manifesting recently in new ways.

From the above linked Philadelphia story:

The Schaibles’ case is similar to a growing number around the country in which parents are slapped with criminal charges for turning to religion rather than medical care for sick children who later die.

From the Wisconsin story:

The case was believed to be the first of its kind in Wisconsin involving faith healing in which someone died and another person was charged with a homicide.

We are apparently seeing a new trend. That trend is clearly supported by a large segment of the public. An unscientific poll conducted by AOL regarding the Wisconsin case indicated that 59% of respondents thought the sentence imposed on the parents was “too lenient.” Only 12% thought it “too harsh.” Here is a sampling of comments responding to the latter assertion:

The child is dead, as a direct result of the actions of the parents (or rather, in this case, inaction.) – Monty Python at RightNation

Somewhere along the line common sense has to come into play… I think we must be careful not to go overboard to the point of excusing ‘all things’ in the name of religious freedom. – Doc at RightNation

Children have a right to be protected. Parents do not have a right to make all the life and death decisions about their child. – chris2x at Fightin Words

I’m for liberty as much as the next guy, and I hate to see the government getting involved where children are concerned, but this is a no-brainer. I understand the importance of religious freedom, but there are also limits to freedom and this is one of them… Their decision absolutely intruded upon their daughter’s life and liberty. – NightTwister at RedState

The “it’s my child and I know what’s best” defense is asinine in cases like this. I hope these idiots are punished to the full extent of the law. – Xephon at RightNation

The theme of the response seems to be, if a child dies because of the conscientious medical decision of their parents, that child’s right to life has been violated. At face value, this may seem a common sense application of the axiom, “Your right to swing your fist ends at the other man’s nose.” However, it fails to account for a couple principles which I assert American society held in the past. First, the rights of children are inextricably intertwined with and exercised by their parents. Children have always been treated differently in the eyes of the law than their adult counterparts, with good reason. The capacity of children to consent and be accountable is universally recognized as inadequate for legal purposes. Therefore, their rights and responsibilities are largely vested in their parents as custodians. In effect, this means the will of a parent for their child is the will of their child, just as a next-of-kin’s will for their incapacitated loved one is functionally the same as if that loved one were expressing it. Second, the right to life does not ensure one’s life will be preserved; if it was meant to, it has a 100% failure rate. The right to life protects one from having their life wrongfully taken from them. The question then becomes: is a child’s life wrongfully taken when their parents make a conscientious medical decision which contributes to their death?

For many, the answer is yes. There seems to be no distinction between death caused by malicious or neglectful action (like stabbing, starving, human sacrifice, or abortion) and death caused by illness. Or the definition of neglect is in question. Many legal definitions of neglect include withholding “medical care.” Of course, what constitutes medical care is a matter of some debate, particularly in the context of many religions and cultures outside the mainstream. For the Neumanns in Wisconsin and the Schaibles in Philadelphia, prayer is medical care. Theirs is a fringe belief which I do not advocate. I am compelled to defend their right to live by that belief however. Because if they do not have the right to live by their beliefs, I do not have the right to live by mine. If our capacity to live by our beliefs hinges on the approval of the majority, we cannot pretend to live under a condition of liberty.

What I find most disconcerting in the discussion of these cases is the sentiment that parents’ freedom to live (and die) by their beliefs does not extend to decisions regarding their children. Consider these comments:

Allowing those children to become lost causes like their parents IS hurting others, and therefore I see such toxic parents as having abrogated their freedom every bit as much as a criminal. – RationalThought at RightNation

They certainly have the right to choose to neglect their own medical needs and die as a direct result (as stupid as that may be.) But just as the state has a compelling obligation in preventing the murder, rape, assault, etc of innocent children, likewise the state has the same compelling obligation to do whatever is necessary to prevent willful neglect which will almost certainly result in the death of innocent children. – Monty Python at RightNation

“[The parents] believe in faith-healing; that’s fine for them,” [Assistant District Attorney Joanne] Pescatore said after the hearing. “But this was a two-year-old child.” – Philadelphia Daily News

Parents have the right to believe whatever they want and live and die by those beliefs. But they do not have the right to guide their progeny down the same path. I infer that children are not truly the domain of their parents, but wards of the state which are granted under conditional terms of custody. If this has truly become a belief under which our society operates, we have some questions to answer. What are the conditions under which the state has licensed our children to us? Who established those conditions? By what process might we amend them? By what principles are they bound? Are they bound? Most interesting to me is: when did this state usurpation of parental rights and responsibilities occur? As acknowledged by both articles cited here, the pursuit of homicide convictions under these types of circumstances is a relatively new development. So why wasn’t it happening before? Was the state itself negligent in allowing parents to make their own decisions regarding the care of their children? Or was there some principle which bound the state from inserting itself into the family domain? These are questions whose proper exploration go far beyond the scope of this blog. But it seems important they be considered.

It seems to me raising one’s children in the manner one sees fit, including the propagation of one’s religious, political, and other beliefs, including as they relate to medicine, is as fundamental an individual right as any other. I am frankly amazed by the extent to which that view is not shared. I find personally offensive the idea that someday, for whatever reason, some government agent may come knocking on my door questioning the means by which I choose to raise my child. I find it as offensive as the idea my “papers” might be arbitrarily checked without cause by government agents in the streets. I find it as offensive as the idea I could be arrested and charged for murder for defending myself and my family in my own home. I find it as offensive as the idea I might be mandated to purchase health insurance as the result of some convoluted argument such a mandate protects the health of society. But I guess we’re doing, or on the verge of doing, all of that too.

Liberty has become weird. Exercising it has become irresponsible and criminal. Advocating it has become fringe lunacy. For doing so, one commenter calls me “a jerk with an agenda.” How bizarre.