Every time I read another story about a child dying for lack of medical attention -- not because of insurance or malpractice but because of his parent's religious beliefs -- I wonder if there's even anything left to say on the matter. It's outrageous. It should not keep happening. And yet, it does. That's pretty much it.
Two-year-old Kent Schaible died of bacterial pneumonia on January 24th, after his parents spent a week praying for him to heal instead of taking him to a doctor. The parents, Herbert and Catherine, are now on trial for involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy to commit involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child. That's nothing new. Parents have been prosecuted for this kind of thing before, and parents have gone to prison -- but it doesn't seem to deter people from adopting belief systems that put their children at grave risk.
If I defy all my instincts, I can try to muster some sympathy for Herbert and Catherine Schnaible, who have, after all, lost a beloved child. In theory, this should not be that hard. I have no trouble feeling compassion for parents who make the tragic mistake of leaving their children in hot cars, for instance -- in large part because I can't imagine any punishment worse than living with having done it. I can even understand too well how parents might miss the signals that their child was not only sick but dying. Several years ago, family friends of mine lost their two-year-old daughter to pneumonia, after a week of worrying about her cough but being assured by a pediatrician and all four grandparents that it only sounded like run-of-the-mill croup. The mother, in particular, was accused of being overprotective, and by the time it became undeniable that something much more serious was wrong, it was too late. Herbert Schnaible's lawyer says his client "cared for his child and thought his child was getting better" -- just like my friends, with the same horrible outcome. So why does his story make me furious and judgmental, when others' only engender overwhelming sympathy and sadness?
Perhaps because Herbert Schnaible's lawyer also says, "his client did everything in his power to care for his son in the days before he died - feeding him and giving him liquids." To characterize feeding your gravely ill child as doing everything in your power to care for him in 2009 -- as opposed to, say 1509 -- strikes me as so irresponsible as to be unforgivable. The Schnaibles weren't tragically misinformed by a pediatrician, because they never consulted one. They weren't mocked for overreacting, because by any reasonable standard, they were underreacting.
And really, that's what it comes down to: Whether you can accept that the kind of person who will refuse to seek medical assistance for a sick child, relying instead on some god's will, qualifies as "reasonable" in any context. I can't. Period. When a parents' superstitious beliefs prevent a child from living long enough to accept or reject those beliefs on his own terms, I can understand why the "new atheists" argue that as a society, we should quit cutting religion so much slack. When someone's demonstrably false ideas lead to the death of a child, how can we prioritize their right to believe such things?
And yet, if we believe in freedom of religion -- and fear the consequences of diluting it -- how can we not? We do, at least, have a system in place to punish those whose religious beliefs conflict sharply with the laws of the land, but that doesn't necessarily save any children from death by superstition; to do that would require some intervention before tragedy occurs. And yet, as soon as I start talking about religion and saving children's lives in the same sentence, I can't help noticing the echoes of the fundamentalist anti-choice movement, arguing that their god's definition of child murder must be respected by all. Therein lies the problem with picking and choosing which religious beliefs to respect; others will always choose differently, and believe just as fervently that they are right. (At least the new atheist argument that no belief in any god should be respected, end of story, is comparatively quite fair and consistent.) If we don't believe in restricting people's right to believe whatever they choose, then there's really not much to do besides hope that the children of people who believe in faith healing are lucky enough to stay healthy on their own, and punish the parents whose children aren't so lucky. It's outrageous, it shouldn't keep happening, and yet, it does. What else is there to say?