Wednesday 12 January 2011

Faith instead of medicine: Is it a good idea?

The Followers of Christ is an unorthodox Christian denomination based in the U.S. state of Oregon. The church has attracted controversy for its practices of faith healing and of shunning members who violate church doctrine, including those who seek medical care. According to authorities in Oregon and other places where church members are found, numerous children have suffered premature deaths from treatable causes due to their parents' refusal to seek medical care. A former Oregon state medical examiner claims the infant mortality rate within the Followers of Christ community is 26 times greater that of the general population.

Church members and others have nevertheless argued that parents should have the right to select whatever methods of healing they deem appropriate for their children and that public policy, which requires use of conventional medicine over faith healing, constitutes a violation of their rights to their freedom of religion.

The Oregon church was founded in the early 20th century by the Reverend Walter White, a preacher who led a congregation which broke away from a Kansas church of the same name in the 1940s. White and his congregation moved to Oregon and built a house of worship on Molalla Avenue in Oregon City, then a largely rural timber and farming community, now a suburb of Portland. White died in 1969, and the church has functioned without a minister since then. In addition to the denomination's Oregon City church building, the Followers of Christ also own a cemetery in Carus, where deceased church members are routinely buried. Estimates of the church's membership range from 1,200 to 2,300. The Oregon City church has secluded itself from all other churches that share its name.

The church is Pentecostal in origin, and believes in a literal interpretation of Scripture, including in the power of faith healing – in the context of Pentecostal Christianity, the use of prayer and laying on of hands to cure illnesses. .

They aren’t the only church group that chooses to ignore what common sense God gave them and rather than have their parishioners seek medical help by suggesting that it would be better to ignore their children’s illnesses, they subsequently let their children die untreated.

In Weston, Wisconsin Kara Neumann, age 11, had grown so weak that she could not walk or speak. Her parents, who believe that God alone has the ability to heal the sick, prayed for her recovery but did not take her to a doctor.

After an aunt from California called the sheriff's department here, frantically pleading that the sick child be rescued, an ambulance arrived at the Neumann's rural home on the outskirts of Wausau and rushed Kara to the hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival.

The county coroner ruled that she had died from diabetic ketoacidosis resulting from undiagnosed and untreated juvenile diabetes. The condition occurs when the body fails to produce insulin, which leads to severe dehydration and impairment of muscle, lung and heart function.

"Basically everything stops," said Dr. Louis Philipson, who directs the diabetes center at the University of Chicago Medical Center, explaining what occurs in patients who do not know or are in denial that they have diabetes.

About a month after Kara's death last March, the Marathon County state attorney, Jill Falstad, brought charges of reckless endangerment against her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann. Despite the Neumanns' claim that the charges violated their constitutional right to religious freedom, Judge Vincent Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court ordered Leilani Neumann to stand trial on May 14, and Dale Neumann on June 23. If convicted, each faces up to 25 years in priso The crux of the Neumanns' case, Peters said, will be whether the parents could have known the seriousness of their daughter's condition.

“The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct.” the judge wrote in his ruling, This would be applicable especially when the conduct is deliberately negligent.

Wisconsin law, the judge noted, exempts a parent or guardian who treats a child with only prayer from being criminally charged with neglecting child welfare laws, but only “as long as a condition is not life threatening.” Judge Howard further wrote, “Her parents were very well aware of her deteriorating medical condition.”

About 300 children have died in the United States in the last 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds, said Rita Swan, executive director of Children's Health Care Is a Legal Duty, a group based in Iowa that advocates punishment for parents who do not seek medical help when their children need it. Swan is also a former Christian Scientist who also believe that faith takes precedence over medicine.

Criminal codes in 30 states, including Wisconsin, provide some form of protection for practitioners of faith healing in cases of child neglect and other matters, protection that Swan's group opposes. Shawn Peters, who teaches religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and is the author of three books on religion and the law, including When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law said the outcome of the Neumann case was likely to set an important precedent. He said, “The laws around the country are pretty unsettled.”

In the last year, two other sets of parents, both in Oregon, were criminally charged because they had not sought medical care for their children on the ground that to do so would have violated their belief in faith healing. One couple were charged with manslaughter in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, who died of pneumonia last March. The other couple were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, who died from complications of a urinary tract infection that was severely painful and easily treatable. The Oregon teenager is dead. His parents were sentenced to 16 months in prison. Not for what they did, but for what they didn't do.

Unfortunately, many religious fanatics believe that faith alone will save their loved ones. Their loved ones dies needlessly.

Swan said that “Many types of abuses of children are motivated by rigid belief systems, including severe corporal punishment.” She learned the hard way when her 16-month-old son, Matthew, died after she postponed taking him to a hospital for treatment of what proved to be meningitis, a fatal illness if not treated as soon as possible.

All states give social service authorities the right to go into homes and petition for the temporary or permanent removal of children, but cases involving medical care often go unnoticed until too late. Parents who believe in faith healing, may feel threatened by religious authorities who oppose medical treatment. Recalling her own experience, Swan said, “We knew that once we went to the doctor, we'd be cut off from God.” Now she realizes that belief was wrong.

Many people use their religious beliefs and values to understand, cope and guide their personal health decisions, but unfortunately their beliefs often conflict with their own doctor's recommendations which results in terrible and often fatal consequences for them or their loved ones. They should presume that their doctors who spend years being trained in medicine are far more qualified to deal with illnesses than ordinary people.

Issues surrounding parental denial of medical care for children in need has unexpectedly emerged as one of the most contentious issues in health law policy in past years. Parents have cited religious reasons or personal preferences for alternative medical therapy as justification to refuse such treatment. Although the ability of a parent to consent to potentially life-saving medical therapy for a child is an established canon of family law, the outer boundaries of a parent’s right to refuse life-saving medical treatment for a child are ill-defined.

Legal precedent and authority currently exists for government authorities to intervene when a sick child’s parent’s refusal to seek medical treatment for a child whose illnesses threatens the general public. Without question, for some diseases and some therapies, parental refusals to allow their child to be medicated not only dramatically increases the likelihood of the child getting the disease, but also greatly increases the health risks to other children they may come into contact with. For example, it would be criminally wrong for a parent to send to school a child who is suffering from Cholera. I can remember the days when a child with chicken pox would have a red notice placed on the front door of his or her home to warn visitors that they cannot enter the house.

The ability of a state to enact reasonable, and neutral legislation to promote the public health of its citizens is not without limits, however. It is based, in part, on whether the state action qualifies for the ‘public health justification’ criterion announced in the Jacobson case. The Supreme Court revisited the Jacobson issue again in 1922 in Zucht v. King when a group of parents claimed a constitutional right to refuse vaccinations for their children. The Court rejected the parents’ claims, and extended the original ruling in Jacobson to hold that school and public health officials could decide the manner and types of mandatory vaccinations that are to be given to the children. Specifically, the Court found that the public vaccination ordinances confer not arbitrary power, but only broad discretion required for the protection of public health.

Current scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can cure cancer or any other disease. Even the ‘miraculous’ cures at the French shrine of Lourdes, after careful study by the Catholic Church, do not outnumber the historical percentage of spontaneous remissions seen among people with cancer. However, faith healing may promote peace of mind, reduce stress, relieve pain and anxiety, and strengthen the will to live. That is where faith plays an important role in healing the sick.

Faith healing is believed to have begun even before the earliest recorded history. In the Bible, God, Jesus and other holy people are said to have had the power to heal. In Medieval times, the Divine Right of Kings was thought to give royalty the ability to heal through touch. Through the years, up to and including the twentieth century, there have been numerous reports of saints performing miracle cures. Today, several religious groups, including Christian Scientists, evangelical Protestants, and some orthodox Jewish sects, practice faith healing.

But be assured that the faith healers you see on TV who supposedly heal the blind and the disabled do not have these powers. Before they invite someone to be brought onto the stage in front of the TV cameras; they are examined by doctors to see whether or not faith alone will cure them of their ailments. If the doctor is convinced that the person seeking help is really blind or is disabled to such an extent that even surgery won’t help them, they are not going to be brought to the so-called faith healer for the miracle touch. The reason is obvious. The organization that puts on those shows doesn’t want the person who is blind, yelling out after being touched by the faith healer, “I am still blind.” Those who miraculously begin walking again after being given the ‘touch’ probably could have walked but in their minds, they were disabled. If their faith is strong enough, they faith will release them from the mental block that won’t let them otherwise walk.

When a person believes strongly that a healer can create a cure, a ‘placebo effect’ can occur. The placebo effect can make the person feel better, but it has not been found to induce remission or improve chances of survival from cancer. The patient usually credits the improvement in how he or she feels to the efforts of the healer, even though the perceived improvement occurs because of the patient’s belief in the treatment. Taking part in faith healing can evoke the power of suggestion and affirm one’s faith in a higher power, which may help promote peace of mind. This may help some people cope more effectively with their illness which was brought on them by their belief that they are really disabled when there is no medical reason why they should be.

When I practiced hypnosis in the Canadian Navy in the early 1950s, I was able to help a patient who was to have all of his teeth removed without any anesthesia being given to him as it would kill him. I hypnotized him and gave him a post hypnotic suggestion that in three days, he would undergo the operation without feeling any pain. The operation was successful. He didn’t suffer from any pain.

In 1977, when my wife was in the hospital and about to have our first child, our doctor asked me to hypnotize her so that he wouldn’t have to give her anything for the pain of delivery. I did as he and my wife asked. She had the delivery without suffering from any pain. But if she was suffering from an illness cause by some disease, there is no way that my hypnotizing her would have cured her of the disease.

When I was wheeled back to my hospital room after having undergone open-heart surgery in 1999, I hypnotized myself into believing that I wouldn’t suffer from any pain in my chest after the operation was completed despite the fact that my ribs were spread apart during the operation. I didn’t suffer any pain at all in the area of my chest after the operation was over and I was conscious again.

This gives you some idea as to just how powerful people’s minds are and how their minds can help those who believe that they are disabled when in fact they are not. But no amount of hypnosis will cure someone of cancer or any other disease. And neither will faith. We must leave the treatment of diseases to the medical practitioners who are qualified to treat them.

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