Twitchell Case Reflections

WHEN the trial of Christian Scientists David and Ginger Twitchell ended with a guilty verdict this past Fourth of July, the timing seemed - well, either cruelly ironic or sadly fitting, depending on one's point of view. The Boston Globe that day ran an article headlined ``10 freedoms to stand by,'' reporting the dedication of the Bill of Rights Walkway outside the Suffolk County courthouse. In a speech at the ceremony, Sen. John Kerry described the Bill of Rights as a protection against the tyranny of the majority over the minority. A local church choir sang.

After the ceremony, Chief Justice Paul Liacos of the state Supreme Judicial Court pointed to the words set in the walkway and remarked, ``See, without this, where would we be? We'd probably be ... with the mood of the moment.''

From most indications, the mood of the public - at least for the majority of those who aren't Christian Scientists - broadly, if somewhat ambivalently, concurs with the Twitchell verdict.

Many have expressed sympathy for the Twitchells as people or reservations about particular aspects of the trial. The forewoman of the jury recently voiced serious second thoughts about the fairness of the proceeding and its impact on the outcome.

Only a few have questioned the basic impulse behind such prosecutions: an increasingly strident insistence on government-imposed medical care for children.

Christian Scientists come at the issue from a unique but not isolated perspective. Despite our differences with doctors, for instance, we've known too many good ones not to respect the caring that comes through in their lives. As one local Christian Scientist wrote from personal experience recently in a Harvard Medical School publication, sometimes we're even married to them!

We can understand the depth of feeling many in the medical community have about requiring children to have medical care. We would feel that same way if we believed a tragedy like Robyn Twitchell's death was an inevitable or likely result of reliance on prayer.

There's no question but that, in weighing basic human ``rights,'' the right of children to the protection of life is paramount. That can be said unequivocally and without undervaluing religious freedom. At the same time, it's misleading to say, as some have, that this case has nothing to do with religion or First Amendment freedoms crucial to all.

There is considerable question, after all, about how a society struggling to be both humane and free can best fulfill its obligation to protect children's lives.

This point is too easily lost in clich'es about the martyring of children. It goes beyond specific cases - whether, in a particular situation, a child would or wouldn't have survived if his parents had made different choices. Enough children have been harmed by well-intentioned medical practices - involving not only mistakes but also accepted treatments later found injurious - that it's hard for Christian Scientists not to believe that the argument objectively cuts both ways.

In the heat and anguish of the Twitchell case, that may sound harsher than it is meant. Skepticism about medical care certainly isn't the basic reason Christian Scientists turn to spiritual healing. Nor, as David Twitchell's answers on the witness stand underscored, do we see turning to a doctor as a ``sin,'' as if such a choice somehow carried the same weight as the calamity of a child's death.

We make our decisions, like everyone else, in the context of experience. Hearing and sorting through the testimony in the Twitchell trial, the bottom line for many Christian Scientists was simply that we've ``been there'' ourselves: We've seen our children healed of similarly serious conditions, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. We've seen the connection between prayer and physical healing borne out repeatedly when a tangible sense of God's presence and infinite love has broken through, often in spite of our fears.

This has happened too many times, and in too many cases considered medically untreatable, to be casually written off as a coincidence or dismissed as a high-minded but impractical ideal.

These healings by and large wouldn't have happened, we feel, if Christian Scientists hadn't sought to approach the practice of prayer systematically as a way of life - if we hadn't taken the whole relation between spirituality and healing more seriously than it ordinarily is taken.

Special prosecutor John Kiernan noted after the trial that most ``mainstream'' Americans see medicine and prayer as working ``in conjunction.'' In practice, however, prayer is usually secondary - harmless, comforting, possibly sometimes even miraculous, but also subordinate to a technologically oriented, biochemically based medical system.

The superiority of that system is so largely unquestioned in today's world that questioning it may seem almost like cultural heresy. As people who live and work in the mainstream of society themselves, Christian Scientists have been grateful for a large measure of toleration over the past nine decades despite their minority status.

It isn't surprising that this public policy has come under hard scrutiny in view of the Twitchell trial. Nevertheless, it seems important that the discussion not be limited to such cases, that the context of practical healing in the lives of Christian Scientists not be merely brushed aside, and that differences between people of good will not be automatically ruled out.

The issue in the Twitchell case goes beyond repression of a particular denominational practice. It ultimately concerns values central to a free society. A member of another minority faith put it eloquently in a comment after the trial:

``In our family, we have always relied on traditional Western medical practice, combined with prayers of our Quaker faith. A three-year-old daughter died in one of the best hospitals in the world under care of world renowned physicians. They and we knew and considered the risks. We had and have no regrets. However, if we have any religious faith at all and conceive of life as having spiritual meaning that transcends rationalism, then surely we must grant considerable leeway in the loving exercise of religion.

``The choices are complex and difficult. Who is to make them? How consistent can we be? We want freedom of choice in some matters and state control in others....

``Each time we face such dilemmas, shouldn't we ask whether the result is a more free and loving society or another step toward an authoritarian state?''

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