In defense of the Twitchells

IF I were the lawyer for Ginger and David Twitchell, the Christian Scientists charged with manslaughter in the death of their 2-year-old son, this is how I'd defend them: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecutor said that my clients, rather than select surgery for a bowel obstruction in their little boy, decided to heal him through prayer. But the healing failed, and the little boy died. The prosecutor told you about the pain the little boy must have endured. And how his parents, because they are adults, have every right to practice what they want for themselves. But the prosecutor says they have no such right to foist their unorthodox ways on a child.

In instances like this, says the prosecutor, the state must step in to protect those who can't protect themselves.

But let's look at the facts. For starters, nobody in this courtroom is more protective - or heartbroken - than the Twitchells. They loved their boy. And in choosing the spiritual route, they thought they were keeping him alive, that's all. They had no crazy illusions about letting him die so they could join him in heaven someday. He wasn't their martyr. He was their son.

And they are Christian Scientists, not witches or goblins or foggy-headed visionaries. They belong to a religion which I don't fully agree with, but a religion nonetheless that has collected a body of clear and compelling testimony that says disciplined prayer can heal. A girl with spinal meningitis is cured by a Christian Science practitioner after conventional doctors have given up. A boy's broken leg heals without steel pins, surgery, or even a cast.

These are not the boastful claims of born-again frauds. And this particular case is not to be confused with Jimmy Swaggart laying his hands on someone's arthritic knees and then screaming, ``Alleluia!'' into the cameras. Christian Scientists are thoughtful and publicity-shy people. They are educators, journalists, lawyers, and bankers. They are your neighbors. They have chosen a different way, and they deserve the full protection of the law for that choice.

But the prosecutor doesn't want you to hear this. He is counting on your ignorance. The less you know about Christian Science, the better.

Did you know, for instance, that many Christian Scientists go to doctors? They also visit dentists and optometrists. And when there is a birth, they use obstetricians and midwives, the same ones you use. If they want an aspirin for a headache, they take it. They are not expelled or banished. Instead, they are encouraged to find their own way to God through a life of prayer.

I'm not going to tell you it always works. But the prosecutor can't say that for his side either.

Just for the record, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health says about 700 children die each year after being treated by conventional medicine. The Twitchells' son was the first in Massachusetts in this decade to die during a Christian Science healing.

Another thing to consider: Suppose the Twitchells had chosen surgery, and their boy had died anyway. Would the surgeons who performed the surgery be on trial today for manslaughter? Of course not.

We'd all chalk it up to rotten luck.

But the prosecutor won't do that. He thinks he has a winner. A little boy is dead in a community where conventional medicine has built a strong and impenetrable defense against new ideas, where any religion but Catholicism is suspect and where thoughtful creativity in taking care of one's body counts for zilch.

Help me, ladies and gentlemen. Help me prove him wrong. Help me prove that people still have a choice, as long as it's a reasonable and decent one.

But mostly, help me spare the Twitchells from paying for a crime they didn't commit. They loved their son. Their first duty as parents was to keep the boy alive. And that's all they were trying to do.

Tom Moroney is a columnist for the Middlesex News in Framingham, Mass., from which this column is reprinted.

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