Punishing Parents for Religious Conviction

A THOUGHTFUL medical ethicist, Renee Fox, has referred to the law as one of society's ``ultimate moral grids,'' the forum where we wrestle as a people with our deepest moral concerns. Moral concern - on both sides - was at the heart of the recent trial of William and Christine Hermanson, Florida parents who lost a much-loved daughter and now face criminal penalties because, as Christian Scientists, they turned for help to their denomination's longstanding practice of Christian healing rather than to medical care.

We can't pretend to be impartial. The Hermansons are members of the church that publishes this newspaper. They are our brethren. It is painful to think of them being condemned and punished for their religious convictions - almost as painful as it was to learn of Amy Hermanson's unexpected death in 1986.

We do not question the earnestness or conscience of the jurors who, confronted by the tragedy of a child's death, rendered a verdict of guilty. Nor do we question the motives of the prosecutors, though their present demand for a prison sentence frankly seems gratuitous and cruel.

The verdict leaves basic moral questions unanswered, however.

Are the Hermansons guilty because they chose a mode of healing rooted in their deep sense of God's love, or because of the results of that choice in this situation?

If the former, are the many Christian Scientists who have made the same choice in equally serious situations, but whose children have been healed, also guilty? If the latter, why aren't parents who turn to physicians in good faith prosecuted when their choice has an equally tragic result?

Obviously, we aren't proposing such prosecutions, which would do the same kind of injustice to others as has been done to the Hermansons. We are simply pointing out that the moral distinction between a tragedy and a crime has been blurred in this case. To be consistent (as several commentators have pointed out), the guilt ascribed to these parents would have to be ascribed to thousands who have endured the agony of losing a child under secular care.

No one denies that the well-being of children is the primary issue. During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Deno Economou acknowledged that ``Christian Science believes in the sanctity of the life of a child.'' But he assumed that the only legitimate expression of this regard for life is in seeking conventional medical care.

It does not demean the humanity or dedication of the medical profession to insist that there are other legitimate ideals of compassionate care, and that current medical procedures may not constitute the ultimate model for healing practice.

For those who believe that medical treatment alone can prevent deaths like Amy's, the moral issues involved in the case may seem black and white. But the practice of medicine, even at its most conscientious, often brings its own complications. It is often better at hindsight than foresight. It has its own morally troubling tragedies.

That may be why a local Sarasota pediatrician and a past president of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, neither of whom are advocates of spiritual healing, volunteered to testify on the Hermansons' behalf.

The denomination acknowledges the serious ethic of responsibility that must accompany any serious ministry of healing. It is not something members turn to, or turn from, lightly.

As a church official wrote to the director of a center for diabetics before this case arose: ``Though [our religious practices] obviously go against the grain, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of Christian Scientists do try to approach matters of this sort sensitively and not dogmatically, and they would only ask others coming from a different perspective to do the same.''

This case, like similar cases now pending, has been highly politicized from the beginning. Opponents of laws permitting spiritual healing have pressed for prosecutions with highly inflated claims on the number of children who have been lost.

The sheer volume of media stories on each case has fostered the impression that deaths of children in Christian Science families are common and Christian Science parents neglectful in their role as their children's guardians.

Neither impression is true - or there would be no justification for retaining the present laws. The very use of labels such as ``child neglect'' in this context has been distorting.

A state attorney in the Midwest commented, in response to a reporter's question on the Florida case: ``I'm not a Christian Scientist, but know Christian Science families. ... They are very loving and caring, family-oriented people.''

He found it difficult even hypothetically to imagine prosecuting parents of this character, he told the reporter, especially where religious faith has been a binding force in family life.

The laws historically recognizing spiritual healing have reflected this reality. In effect, they affirm the moral distinctions missed in the Florida trial. They do not ``shield'' child neglect, but recognize that the spirit and practice of such healing involve an immense parental commitment to children that should not morally or legally be equated with criminal conduct.

These provisions are based not merely on religious freedom, but on a broad history of consistent healing in Christian Science families. That history alone explains the commitment of Christian Scientists today to spiritual healing as a way of life - and their deep moral concern with the Florida verdict.

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