Religious Health Care Exemptions for Children Reward Neglect

In March 2009, 17-year-old Zachery Swezey complained to his parents that he didn’t feel well. His parents believed he had the flu. Zachery suffered fevers and vomiting for days as his condition worsened. Finally, when he could no longer walk to the bathroom, Greg and JaLea Swezey called church elders to come over and anoint their son with olive oil.

The Swezeys are members of Carlton’s Church of the First Born, which practices faith healing. The next day, Zachery died. The cause was appendicitis, a condition with a mortality rate of almost zero thanks to the wonders of modern medicine.

Zachery’s death is truly regrettable, especially since it was completely preventable. What is even more outrageous is that his parents have been acquitted of second-degree murder for his death. The couple has pled third-degree criminal mistreatment; it’s unclear at this point what sentence they will ultimately receive. To obtain a lighter sentence, the Swezeys appealed to the spirit of a Washington state law that frees Christian Scientists from criminal neglect charges.

This isn’t the only religiously-based medical exemption on the books. A whopping 48 states allow religious exemption from immunizations, for example, which jeopardizes the health of not only those children, but the children around them; one study conducted of unvaccinated children in Colorado found them 35 times more likely to contract measles than vaccinated children, and at least 11% of cases in vaccinated children were caused by contact with an unvaccinated child.

The exemptions get more extreme: students in many states can evade physical exams, hearing tests, treatments for life-threatening illnesses like tuberculosis, and more. Six states allow students to be exempt from learning about disease at school. Oregon and Pennsylvania actually offer religious exemptions from bicycle helmets.

This lack of preventative health care is tragic and reckless, but nowhere near as dangerous as exemptions from providing medical care to already-sick children. Thirty-eight states allow for religious exemptions for neglect!

Pediatrician Seth Asser and CHILD president Rita Swan have published a study examining the deaths of 172 children where medical care was withheld on religious grounds. They found that 140 of the children would have had at least a 90% likelihood of survival with medical care.

These laws unquestionably increase the suffering of blameless children. Numerous court cases of children dying of completely treatable diseases have ended with the parents walking away relatively scot-free, because legally, prayer is equally as effective a treatment as antibiotics. Parents do, of course, have the right to decide what is best for their children, and exemptions exist to respect those choices. But if a mother with a non-religious personal conviction failed to care properly for a son with fatal appendicitis, she would not receive a lighter sentence like the Swezeys have.

The law widely allows special treatment of faith-based neglect, and this neglect is tragic enough without failing to give it fair consequences.

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