When belief kills

The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 22 2009 10:07 AM

When belief kills

Where does religious freedom end?

This is an important question, a vital one. At times, a matter literally of life and death.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.

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In Wisconsin, the parents of Madeline Kara Neumann are going to stand trial soon for killing their child. She had juvenile diabetes. Her parents did not take her to get medically treated, but instead prayed over her. Last March, she died of diabetic ketoacidosis: she dehydrated, and her body basically shut down. She was 11 years old.

Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs in people with diabetes who don't get insulin. It is almost completely preventable with regular insulin shots, a simple medical procedure. In other words, had Kara been diagnosed with diabetes -- and that's a relatively easy disease to diagnose in children during routine medical checkups -- she would almost certainly be alive today. Medical science provides children with diabetes the ability to live a relatively normal life.

This is so, so sad; the death of a child, especially one that was almost certainly completely preventable, is an awful thing to contemplate. But we have to think about it, because it appears that Kara's death was her parents' fault. From the New York Times article linked above:

The Neumanns... are known locally as followers of an online faith outreach group called Unleavened Bread Ministries, run by a preacher, David Eells. The site shares stories of faith healing and talks about the end of the world.

It's clear from the news reports (for example here, here, and here) that the religious beliefs of the parents were to blame for this little girl's death. I won't beleaguer you with the details of knowing that faith healing doesn't work beyond the placebo effect, and in the case of diabetes doesn't work at all. What's important to think about here is, if religion is behind Kara's death -- and we know that fringe religious beliefs of parents have caused countless cases of children becoming sick or even dying -- then what recourse does the justice system have?

I have no doubts that many religious people would claim that they have the right to do as they see fit to take care of their children. A case can be made for that; I personally don't want the government telling me what I can and cannot do to raise my child. But then, we already acknowledge that laws exist that govern this very thing. I cannot sell my child, or abuse her, or do any number of other things that violate her rights as a human.

Certainly, causing the death of a person takes away their human rights.

In this country, we have a right to believe what we want. I agree with that idea. However, we do not have the right to necessarily act on those beliefs.

What if my religion says I must pray by screaming at the top of my lungs at funerals? Or if it says I have to commit genocide to bring about the Rapture? Or if I can only get into Paradise by flying planes into buildings?

Obviously, these are not rhetorical or even hypothetical questions. Clearly, religious rights have limits. According to the NYT article, the laws on the books about belief-related deaths vary from state to state, and the outcome of this trial may set precedents across the country. If it is indeed shown that the parents of this young girl caused her death due to their religious beliefs, then I sincerely hope they are locked away for a long, long time.

You have the right to believe what you want. But you don't have the right to allow that belief to cause harm to come to children under your care. And diabetes doesn't care what you believe.

My thanks to BABloggee Spencer Cunningham for sending me this news. Thanks also to Steve Novella for advice.