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Faith healing

Two Christian groups that oppose medical care

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Faith groups that avoid conventional medical procedures:

Many, perhaps most, faith groups recommend prayer as a supplement to medical care. However, some religious groups go further: they either:

  • Teach that certain medical procedures are not allowed, or

  • Recommend that members generally reject medical attention in favor of prayer.

Two of these groups are Christian Science and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

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The Church of Christ, Scientist (a.k.a. Christian Science)

  This denomination promotes healing of physical and mental illnesses and disorders through prayer. They do compromise somewhat in the case of broken bones. Here they  suggest that members might consider having broken bones set by a physician and then seek healing from a Christian Science Practitioner. Most have no objection to the use of glasses and canes. Many Christian Scientists do not use medicine or go to doctors; they choose prayer when faced with a personal medical problem, in themselves or their children. They base these beliefs on the many passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) which describe Jesus Christ or the apostles healing sick people in the first century CE. The denomination's weekly periodical Christian Science Sentinel and their monthly Christian Science Journal regularly publish corroborated testimonies of heading through prayer. The Journal does not generally report on cases where prayer failed.

Some Christian Scientists rely upon their own prayer. Christian Science Practitioners are also available for assistance. Practitioners devote themselves full time to helping others through prayer. They look upon themselves more as facilitators than religious healers. They believe that only God heals.

Gary Jones, a Christian Science spokesperson commented on a parent's responsibility for a sick child. "...taking care of a child is a sacred responsibility. If one form of treatment is not working, parents have an obligation to investigate other alternatives." Presumably, this includes medical treatment in a doctor's office or hospital.

Some cases of apparently preventable deaths due to reliance on faith healing by Christian Scientist parents were:

bullet Ashley King died in 1988 at the age of 12. Her parents, John and Catherine King had withdrawn her from her Phoenix, AZ school in 1987 because of "a problem with her leg." 1 CPS gained temporary custody of the child and took her to the hospital. She had a tumor on her right leg that was 41 inches in circumference. The attending doctor estimated that she would have had a 55 to 60% chance of recovery if she had received prompt medical attention earlier. He recommended that her leg be amputated "to reduce her pain in the time she had remaining." The parents refused, and transferred her to a Christian Science nursing home where she received only non-medical care. Most such nursing homes do not permit distribution of pain medication. She allegedly died in extreme pain. The parents were charged with child abuse. They plea-bargained it down to reckless endangerment and received three years probationary sentence.

bullet Robyn Twitchell of Boston MA died in 1986 at the age of two of an intestinal blockage which could have been repaired by conventional surgery. His parents were convicted. This was overturned on appeal in 1993.

bulletAmy Hermanson, aged 7, died from childhood diabetes. Her Sarasota FL parents are Christian Scientists. They were aware of her illness but did not seek medical attention for her. Both were convicted in 1986 of child abuse and third degree murder. Their conviction was overturned in 1992 by the Florida Supreme Court. 2,3

bulletAndrew Wantland, aged 12, died of untreated juvenile diabetes in Orange County, CA. He had lost weight, complained of exhaustion, and drank large amounts of water - all indications of diabetes. After missing a week of schooling due to what his family called the "flu",  Andrew's father finally summoned an ambulance. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

bulletRita Swan co-founded Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) in 1983. 3 She had documented deaths of children in Christian Science families due to:
"... meningitis, diabetes, diphtheria, measles, kidney infection, septicemia, cancer, and appendicitis; she has found outbreaks of polio and measles at Christian Science camps and schools; she has interviewed adults who, because of diseases and injuries that went untreated during childhood, became profoundly deaf, or lame, or suffered permanent organ damage." 4

On the other hand, there are many testimonies of and by individuals who recovered from an illness or disability after prayer. These are often reported in the weekly Christian Science Sentinel and the monthly Christian Science Journal.

To our knowledge, no scientifically designed study has ever been published in which the rate of cures through Christian Science Pratitioners' prayers has been compared cures due to regular medical intervention. In view of the failure of large scale, statistically valid studies of the effectiveness of prayer in healing, we recommend that individuals proceed with extreme caution before abandoning conventional medical treatment in favor of prayer.

During 2010, a decades-long battle over a federal health care reform act was being waged. According to CHILD, Inc., the Christian Science church:

"... placed scores of op-eds in newspapers arguing for 'inclusion” of 'spiritual health care' in health care plans. Aping medical terminology, the church calls the faith healers 'practitioners,' their prayers 'treatments,' and the people they pray for their 'patients.' The practitioners bill for their prayers. The church was attempting to mandate that insurers reimburse for 'treatments' consisting only of prayer."

"Church lobbyists told the press that about 300 insurance companies used to reimburse for Christian Science 'treatment,' but with the advent of managed care most insurers now require a medical diagnosis before they will pay for health care. The church wants public and private insurers to pay for the prayer treatments without a medical diagnosis."

"Its main argument was that the goal of health care reform was to include everyone, and therefore it should provide 'all Americans the opportunity to use the method of care that best meets their needs'."

"The lobbyists pointed out that 'spiritual care' was already reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid and proclaimed that many 'effectively and responsibly' use the 'spiritual-care system'." 6

In reality, Medicare and Medicaid only pay for care given inside Christian Scientist facilities. The Church's new request was to include services of Christian Science practitioners in people's homes and other locations.

Senator Owen Hatch (R-UT) added an amendment to the Senate's health care reform bill that would have required insurers to reimburse charges for "religious or spiritual health care." Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) sponsored a similar amendment to the House's health care reform bill. Campaigns by CHILD, Inc; American Humane Association; American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children; Every Child Matters Education Fund; the American Academy of Pediatrics; Freedom from Religion Foundation; American Atheists; Secular Coalition for America; and Americans United for Separation of Church and State were successful. The amendments were not included in the final bill. According to an article i the San Jose Mercury News, the Christian Science Church:

"... blamed the removal of its prayer-fee mandate 'on vehement and often misleading opposition voiced by a longtime critic of Christian Science as well as a coalition of atheist groups opposed to the notion of anything religious in law'." 6

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The Watchtower Society (a.k.a. Jehovah's Witnesses):

This Christian denomination teaches that blood transfusions, even if needed to save a person's life, must not be accepted. This teaching is based upon three passages in the Bible which prohibit the consuming of blood:

bulletGenesis 9:4: "But flesh (meat) with...blood...ye shall not eat"

bulletLeviticus 17:12-14: "...No soul of you shall eat blood...whosoever eateth it shall be cut off"

bulletActs 15:29 "That ye abstain...from blood..."

The Watchtower Society interprets "eating" of blood in a very inclusively. They include the receiving of blood transfusions. All or essentially all other Christian groups belief that the passages refer to dietary laws.

Local Child Protective Services sometimes  intrude on parents' rights and take into care sick children of Jehovah's Witness parents whose health or life is threatened by the lack of a blood transfusion. According to the Watchtower Society, an adult Jehovah's Witness who willingly and knowingly accepts a blood transfusion is committing a sin and might forfeit his or her eternal life. Some counter-cult sources imply that the church teaches that all who have had a transfusion (even if given against their will or at an age or situation when they cannot give informed consent, or given without their knowledge) will lose eternal life. This is not true.

Dr. Carl J. Saphier led a study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY, of the maternal death rate among Jehovah's Witnesses. The report indicates a death rate of 521 deaths per 100,000 live births--a rate nearly 44 times higher than that among the general US population. The precision of that number is in doubt because it was based on two deaths. Sr. Saphier said:

"The findings imply that special care is required for women who are Jehovah's Witnesses, including special counseling prior to delivery, methods of minimizing the blood loss at delivery, and fast treatment for any hemorrhage." 5

More information on the group's medical teachings

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Caroline Fraser, "Suffering children and the Christian Science church," Atlantic Monthly, 1995-APR.
  2. Jean Heller, "Abuse laws still vague when faith is involved," St. Petersburg Times, at: http://geocities.com/
  3. Dr. Rita Swan, "Cry, The Beloved Children, Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty" (CHILD), 1994. [This is a pamphlet which discusses the relative lack of effectiveness of Christian Science healing compared to medical science] Available from (712) 948-3500 or by writing to PO Box 2604, Sioux City Iowa 51106. See: http://www.childrenshealthcare.org/; telephone (712) 948-3500; Fax (712) 948-3704; Email: childinc@netins.net
  4. Stephen Carter, Op-ed piece, New York Times, 1996-JAN-31
  5. Charnicia E. Huggins, "Childbirth Death Risk High in Jehovah's Witnesses," Reuters, at: http://news.excite.com/ Based on a report in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2001;185:893-895.
  6. Rita Swan, "Church fails to get prayer-free mandates in health care bills," CHILD, Ind., 2010-JUL-04, at: http://www.childrenshealthcare.org/

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Faith healing > here

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-AUG-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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