THE right of parents to choose spiritual healing over medical care for their children in life-threatening situations is challenged in a trial scheduled to begin here today. The Suffolk County district attorney has charged David and Ginger Twitchell with manslaughter in connection with the 1986 death of their 2-1/2 year-old son, Robyn. The couple, Christian Scientists, treated the child with prayer rather than conventional medicine. The child's death was later attributed to Meckel's diverticulum, a birth defect of the bowel.
Suffolk County special prosecutor John Kiernan argues that children have a right to medical treatment in life-threatening situations.
Attorneys for the Twitchells argue that the parents should not be prosecuted, because they acted in accord with the practices of their religion and with a 1971 state law dealing with child abuse and neglect. The statute, similar to laws in most other states, provides that ``a child shall not be deemed to be neglected or lack proper physical care for the sole reason that he is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual means alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church.''
A 1974 state attorney general's opinion held that the law, while not preventing the state from intervening to compel medical treatment in cases of life-threatening illness, precluded ``imposition of criminal liability as a negligent parent'' for relying on spiritual healing.
Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin last year rejected a defense motion to dismiss the charges as inconsistent with state law. A Supreme Judicial Court justice also refused to halt the trial, saying that the due-process issues raised by the case could be resolved during the trial. Due process is the constitutional right to be informed, before taking an action, that the state considers the action to be a crime.
Stephen Lyons, co-counsel for the Twitchells, says the defense will argue for acquittal on due-process grounds and that the couple is not guilty of manslaughter.
``The conduct of the parents was not `wanton or reckless disregard' for human life,'' Mr. Lyons says. ``This is a rare and deadly birth defect which is extremely difficult to diagnose ... and for medical science to deal with. These parents never for an instant believed that their child was in a life-threatening situation.''
The Twitchells have said that during the child's illness, his condition appeared at least twice to have greatly improved, encouraging them in their prayers.
The case is among seven indictments brought recently against Christian Scientists related to the deaths of children. In the past year, prosecutors in Florida, California, and Minnesota have charged parents with mixed results. A 1989 Arizona case ended with a plea bargain.
In all cases except in Massachusetts, prosecutors have filed child endangerment and manslaughter charges against the parents. In the Florida case a manslaughter charge was dropped by the judge prior to the trial, although the parents were convicted of felony child abuse. Manslaughter was also set aside in one of the California cases, but a jury convicted the parents of a lesser charge of child endangerment. Both verdicts are under appeal.
In another California case all charges were dropped against Christian Science parents whose child had died suddenly; the judge determined that conviction was not warranted and the parents had not acted irresponsibly.
Earlier this month a Minnesota judge dismissed charges against a couple, holding that state law precluded criminal prosecutions of parents relying ``in good faith'' on spiritual healing. He held that the prosecution had misconstrued the manslaughter law, violating the parents' due-process rights. The prosecution is appealing that decision.
Officials of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which has its headquarters in Boston but is not named in the Twitchell case, said in advertisements placed in major New England newspapers last week that the prosecutions are ``misdirected.'' They contend that while thousands of children die each year under medical treatment, only a handful have been lost under Christian Science treatment since 1983, which have led to the seven prosecutions.
As the trial begins, the Massachusetts General Court, the state's legislature, is considering changing the law so that parents would be required to obtain medical treatment to protect a child from ``serious harm or illness.'' A number of physicians testified last week in favor of the bill, which they said was needed to protect children. Christian Scientists and others who testified opposed it as an infringement on religious freedom. Church officials pointed to a record of effective caring for children through prayer.