How far is too far? The Intersection of Medicine and Religion.

Parents love their children. They want what is best for them. This article does not intend to entertain the debate about whether parents care about their children or not. Rather, this article proposes a policy that aims to destruct ideologies that could prioritize religion before the life of a child. Although there is an intent of parents to provide the best care for their children, religious views against medical treatment inevitably put the minor’s life in danger.
The relationship between medicine and religion is a complicated one, but certainly not new. From a historical perspective, medicine was first practiced in religious buildings before hospitals were built. Faith was and still is, essential to healing. The two fields have had overlaps from the beginning; therefore, they cannot easily be disassociated nor would it be ethical to do so. The intersection of spirituality and healing converged to a fundamentalist concept today: the belief in “spiritual healing” over scientifically based medicine (Cobb). Fundamentalists view medicine as an unholy manipulation of the human body and as an egotistical and faithless approach to healing. They believe that God will save the sick – including infants and children.
The Four Pillars of Medicine (Beneficence, Autonomy, Justice, and non-Maleficence) as written in the Principles of Biomedical Ethics acts as a guide for physicians to help them rationally handle ethical dilemmas in the medical field, such as those involving religion (Beauchamp). My policy proposal aims to preserve the integrity of The Four Pillars of Medicine. I urge that there should be a federal law implemented that states: religion should not prevent an individual under the age of 18 from getting appropriate medical treatment when the physician qualifies it as highly desirable or mandatory. The qualifications of “highly desirable” and “mandatory” indicate that the life of the child is in imminent danger or will be soon. The physician should be held responsible for identifying what deems as necessary treatment versus what is elective. That should be up to the uninfluenced physician’s discretion. No more children should be left to die due to the parent’s religious beliefs.
There are children that are refused treatment for their medical illness by their parents due to religion. This directly contradicts the primary purpose of medicine. As said by Dr. Eric Cassel “the relief of suffering is the fundamental goal of medicine”. Doctors are educated to treat people. To a doctor, the death of a patient is a medical failure. A medical failure should not occur unless either the adult patient refuses treatment or that despite treatment, the patient does not survive. In the case that an adult patient refuses treatment, by virtue of preserving autonomy, the physician will respect the adult’s belief. Autonomy entails that the doctor informs the patient of all the treatment options along with the possible consequences of them – both physical and financial. Furthermore, and most importantly autonomy means that the patient makes the final decision regarding whether they want treatment or not (Gillon). However, the lines become blurry when the situation is applied to an infant or child. Since the minor cannot legally make the decision by themselves, the parent or guardian has the power to authorize the treatment. However, some parents refuse treatment on their children because of religious views. This is where the problem lies. I argue that they are infringing on the autonomy of another life – even if it is their own child. For example, a 20-year old woman, Mariah Walton, is suffering physically and emotionally because her parents denied her medical care when she was younger. She is now diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which at this stage can only be treated by a heart and lung transplant – both extremely risky procedures. This dire state could have been easily prevented in her infancy if the parents allowed the doctor to close a small congenital hole in her heart – a simple, and less risky procedure. Instead, they refused and believed that the illness could be healed by prayer alone. Her parents are both fundamentalists that belong to the Pentecostal group known as the Followers of Christ sect. She tells the news reporter from The Guardian “yes, I would like to see my parents prosecuted”, “they deserve it and it might stop others” (Wilson). Her condition is now irreversible since her parents decided to refuse treatment when she was an infant. Feelings of regret are not enough to heal their daughter today. There should be no reason to gamble with life.
There are many reasons as to why this policy is justified. Firstly, the infant or child is unlikely to understand any form of abstract concepts, let alone religion. Although the child may eventually follow the same religion as their parents when they come to that maturity, they cannot comprehend intangible concepts when their brains are just beginning to develop. The article written by Richard Dawkins, “Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children”, emphasizes that parents are ultimately labeling their children by pushing beliefs on them (Dawkins). Dawkins writes that “unlike national labels, religious labels carry a baggage of personal opinion” (Dawkins). This is a Catholic child, and this one a Muslim. But at that age they do not possess the qualities of understanding these labels, so how can a parent use religion as a reason to risk their child’s life? How can they use a concept that the patient does not understand, and use it against their life? When a religious tradition creates danger in a minor’s life, these questions come into the picture. Research suggests that even throughout elementary school students have difficulty grasping the idea of abstract concepts and need some sort of physical object to rely on (Tomlinson 2014). So, how can a parent use a reason that the patient does not understand to refuse treatment and ultimately jeopardize the child’s life? There is no way for a child to fight back. Again, this policy does not intend to infringe on religious freedom guaranteed by America. A professor in law and public health at Ohio State University says: “The U.S. values religious freedom to the point where states are willing to grant parents the right to refuse even life-saving medical treatments for their children if the parents can show that there’s a religious tenet that would be violated by administering the treatment” (Healthline). America is strongly associated with its promise of religious freedom. This policy does not take away the religious rights of a patient. Adults may refrain from treatment, but when it comes to another individual, even if it is their own child, it is not ethical from a medical perspective (Wreen). At that moment, the autonomy of the patient is lost to the religious freedom of the parent. The policy ensures that the Four Pillars of Medicine are preserved (Beauchamp). Although the autonomy of the parent is declined today, justice, non-maleficence, beneficence, and the future autonomy of the child are preserved. This policy prioritizes the patient’s future above the parent’s religious beliefs. Allowing a child to die without them having the chance to voice their religious values is hypocritical.
In some circumstances, parents are confused about what is best for their children; this policy will leave no space for this. After all, parents want what is best for their child. This law will act as a safety net for those parents who simply do not know better. Despite their efforts to keep their children healthy, some parents may not be educated on the proficiency of the American health care system. They are then pulled into practices such as “spiritual healing” due to internal ambiguity. The community’s political and spiritual ambiance has a substantial influence on the decisions a parent makes- including choices that are made regarding healthcare. There still exists public funding through insurance companies such as Medicare for spiritual healing practices. Public funding for nonmedicinal healing practices legitimizes the practice of spiritual healing as equivalent to science-based medicine. But parents should not have the option to be uncertain when it comes to the health care of a child (Pediatrics, vol. 132, no. 5). In addition, state laws create ambiguity and unequal treatment of children when it comes to the neglect of medical care due to religion. For example, Oregon is one of the few states that has banned faith healing as a murder defense (Rubinkam). A child living in one state should not have any less of the right to live than a child in another state. Therefore, there is an immediate need for a federal level discussion.
This policy is not a blind approach to healthcare. It has been thoughtfully proposed after listening to the cries and regrets of the affected families. This approach to medicine does not seek to segregate medicine and faith. Rather, it aims to conserve the autonomy of the child and prevent any irreversible actions. We have listened to past stories. It is time to talk about it and create some changes.

by Sanju Senthilkumar

My name is Sanjanaa (Sanju) Senthilkumar and I am a student at Baylor University. I am very passionate in pursuing a a career in medical ethics and love writing about healthcare advocacy. Let me know if you have any ideas/thoughts!

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