As preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough are reappearing in the United States, many anti-vaxxers are re-evaluating their opposition to immunization, and others are questioning nonmedical exemptions from vaccine requirements. The California state Senate, for instance, just overruled a long-standing law that permitted parents with religious and philosophical reservations to send their children to public and private schools without their shots.
This is a sound decision: Vaccinations are safe and essential for the health of our society. We cannot allow philosophy or faith to trump public health. But denying children potentially life-saving vaccines is just one part of the problem; I’d like to eliminate even more exemptions: those now enshrined in many laws permitting religious parents to withhold scientific medical care from their children in favor of faith healing.
Forty-eight states—all except West Virginia and Mississippi—allow religious exemptions from vaccination. (California would be the third exception if its bill becomes law.) A similar deference to religion applies to all medical care for children. As the National District Attorneys Association reports, 43 states give some kind of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.
If your faith mandates spiritual healing and your child dies because you offer prayer instead of insulin or antibiotics, your chances of being charged with a crime are slim. There are religious exemptions for child neglect and abuse, negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter. Several states allow parents to use a religious defense against charges of murder of their child—and in some places they can’t be charged with murder at all. And even when parents are prosecuted, acquiescence to religious belief often leads to their being acquitted or given light sentences, including unsupervised parole. None of this, of course, applies to parents who refuse medical care on nonreligious grounds; those individuals get no immunity from prosecution.
Some states allow religious exemptions from required testing of newborns for metabolic disorders, such as the inability to break down fats or amino acids, that can kill an untreated child but are perfectly treatable if caught early. Some states allow exemptions from giving newborns hearing tests or prophylactic eyedrops that can prevent blindness in infants infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea.* Seven states allow religious exemptions from testing children for lead levels in their blood, and six even allow religious exemptions to students learning about disease in school. In perhaps the most bizarre and potentially dangerous law, public school teachers in California can legally refuse to be tested for tuberculosis on religious grounds.
These exemptions have produced the expected result: Hundreds of children have gotten sick and died because their parents resorted to faith rather than medicine. I cover this ongoing tragedy, one of the most serious conflicts between rationality and superstition, in my new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, and you can read more in Caroline Fraser’s God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church and Paul Offit’s Bad Faith. These children either have no choice in their treatment or are not mature enough to make informed decisions. Some, like children of Jehovah’s Witnesses who die from refusing blood transfusions, are even extolled as “Youths who put God first.” All of them are martyrs to their parents’ religion.
Most of these deaths are needless. A 1998 medical study analyzed cases of child mortality due to faith-based medical neglect and found that of the 172 deceased, 140 had conditions that would have been curable with a probability of greater than 90 percent, while another 18 would have been cured with a probability between 50 and 90 percent. All but three of the children would have been helped by real medical care. Here are two of the children killed by religious parents who abjured doctors:
A 2-year-old child aspirated a bite of banana. Her parents frantically called other members of her religious circle for prayer during nearly an hour when signs of life were still present. ...
One teenager asked teachers for help getting medical care for fainting spells, which she had been refused at home. She ran away from home, but law enforcement returned her to the custody of her father. She died three days later from a ruptured appendix.
Now, not all faith-healing parents get off scot-free after killing their child. Last year, for example, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, members of First Century Gospel Church, were sentenced to prison in Pennsylvania for up to seven years after their son Brandon died of pneumonia without receiving medical attention. But their incarceration for third-degree murder came only because this was the second child the Schaibles had lost: A previous son died of bacterial pneumonia, also without treatment. For that they received only probation. It took two faith-based deaths before the judge finally declared, “You’ve killed two of your children … not God, not your church, not religious devotion—you. ”
Recognizing these harms, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for the repeal of all laws allowing religious exemptions.
These exemptions endanger individual and public health and have killed hundreds of children. So why do they exist? They clearly reflect America’s unquestioning respect for faith. But is it really “respect” to give parents the right to let their children die when the rest of us know they can be saved? By all means let us have religious freedom, but let us curtail that freedom at the line where health and lives are at stake. Neither philosophy nor religion should allow parents the right to substitute prayer or ritual for science-based medicine. Reason mandates that we eliminate all nonmedical exemptions for vaccination and children’s health care.
*Correction, May 27, 2015: This article originally misstated that prophylactic eyedrops could prevent blindness in newborns infected with herpes. The eyedrops prevent blindness in infants infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea. (Return.)