5X5 Episode 12

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5X5 Episode 12
Faith-healing cults
23rd March 2008

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5X5 11 5X5 13
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Faith-healing cult leads to child death from medical neglect[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5X5. The topic for this evening is the death of a 15-month-old Oregon City girl Ava Worthington. The 15-month-old girl was sick with pneumonia. Her parents, who are members of a local Pentecostal cult called The Followers of Christ Church, believe in faith healing and did not seek medical attention for their daughter, and as a result, unfortunately, the little girl did die. The parents are now under investigation because in 1999 a new law was passed in Oregon.. umm… removed some of the protections for parents who seek protection under their religious beliefs for this kind of medical neglect.

E: The Followers of Christ Church… this is nothing new to them… unfortunately, they've been relying on faith healing for pretty much their entire existence, since late in the 19th or early 20th century. The followers believe in a literal translation of the scripture which states that the sick shall be anointed by elders and the faith will heal all. Death comes if it's God's will - they believe. Child deaths have plagued this church for a long time; at least 21 of 78 children who have died at the Church since 1955 likely could have been saved with routine medical care. This is all part of an ongoing series of reports and investigations into this… well, cult as far as I'm concerned, for quite a long time now.

J: Also, it started with one guy. His name is Walter White. so called "fire and brimstone" preacher who brought the church to Oregon in the 30s. His followers believed that God appeared to this guy in a dream, and chose him to be the leader of their group.

S: He's definitely a cult figure.

E: Absolutely!

R: It's pretty much how most religions start: angel appeared to me in a dream, told me I have God's blessing, blah blah blah, and it's sad though when it has this sort of result. You look at Christian scientists it's the same kind of thing where there's a focus on faith healing and God will heal us if it's meant to be. And because of that, we have for instance mumps outbreaks and measles outbreaks in Boston, and it affects the most innocent member of the family like the little kid who can't even make decisions for themselves.

S: Yeah, obviously, when you're trying to balance the freedom of religion and the rights of a parent over their children with the duty to protect a child and to give at least the basic necessities of life, it's a very thorny issue. But I think that there is a general consensus that children should not be neglected to the point of permanent harm or death, regardless of what the views of their parents are. The primary promoters in this country of the rights of parents to rely entirely upon faith healing are the Christian scientists and even in this… the recent Oregon law that was passed largely in reaction to this cult or this church… the Christian scientists mobilized and tried to prevent this new law from passing to weaken the protections for faith healing parents.

J: It's good to see that the states are starting to notice this and pass laws that are going to protect the children … but really, when does it step on freedom of speech or those people's rights to, you know, worship their religion? What do you guys think about that?

R: Well yeah, I mean you can never… it's a fine line and obviously I don't think that we should ever pass a law that infringes upon a person to make their own independent choice about what they believe in just so long as we protect the people who can't decide what they do or don't believe in. And that's the little kids, so any law that's gonna protect children without affecting someone's own personal belief and how they conduct themselves, I'm going be o.k. with. But it is definitely a fine line there.

S: But once kids are involved, as you say, it's a different story. I did come across, while researching for this piece, a group called CHILD which stands for Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty and they are a child advocacy group that trying to act to have more of these Oregon type laws passed to protect children from medical neglect because their parents follow a faith healing belief system. This was actually started by Rita and Doug Swan who were in the Christian Science Church and their 15-month-old son Matthew died of an untreated meningitis because at the time they were believers and then later came to realize, you know, how misguided they were and are now, in his memory, trying to undo the damage that they did, started this group called CHILD. So hopefully this is the start of a trend and we're gonna see more laws in the direction of protecting children in cases like this.

E: And fully prosecuting the parents whose responsibility it is to make sure their children remain alive and get the treatment they need.

S: That's right.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.