I read a story in the New York Times this week about a couple in Wisconsin who were sentenced to 6 months in prison and 10 years probation for failing to provide their 11-year old daughter with medical treatment needed to save her life. Instead, they opted for “spiritual treatment” and refused all other legitimate medical options. The child, who had an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes, died after weeks of needless suffering.
The parents of the child are Pentecostals, and evidently believed that praying for their daughter in the absence of treatment would cure her of the disease. When asked to comment about the death of his daughter, the father said, “We live by faith… We are completely content with what the Lord has allowed to come down, but he is not done yet.”
Most reading this will recognize that these people are, to use a term that pops up in psychology texts, “mystified” — a brand of delusion native to supernaturalists. What’s really at the heart of this delusion is narcissism. Mystified people believe that they can bring to bear a spiritual intervention on their behalf, because as people of faith, they are just that special. They turn away legitimate medical treatment because it’s an affront to their faith that their deity will save them. People of faith need no such treatment — when god is for us, who (or what) can be against us? And if god doesn’t save them, well that’s fine too because that’s the deity’s choice for his/her/its chosen faithful.
When people think this way, clouded by a metaphysics that abjures physical reality, they are dangerous. They’re dangerous to themselves, but also, more tragically, dangerous to others, like these parents were to their child. I’m entirely in favor of the penalty the court passed down, but I don’t think it goes far enough. The parents have three other children who could all be subject to the same deadly ignorance that killed their sister. It strikes me as an endorsement of neglect to allow these people to do more damage to these kids. As much as I hate the idea of taking kids away from their parents, it hardly seems right allowing children to remain imperiled when one child has already died.
As to the parents, I’d like to say that with treatment they’d become fit to care for their children, but I don’t really think that’s true for two reasons. First, Pentecostalism and other spiritual extremisms are inherently resistant to treatment, principally because the belief encompasses the whole of a person’s being. All of that person’s self-esteem is bound to the belief. To them, it’s not a delusion, it’s who they are.
Second, as a society we operate under the fanciful, politically correct doctrine of “let them be.” Who are we to challenge another person’s faith? Surely they can believe whatever they wish. And yes, they can — until that belief endangers others. Then we should cut the PC nonsense and directly call it like it is: delusional spiritual belief is dangerous. It results in harm, and a civil society should not allow children, or anyone else, fall prey to the dangerous predilections of the mystified.
Will 6 months in prison cure these people? I doubt it. But at least it’s a message that we’re not going to tolerate parents allowing their children to die in the name of any spirit, deity or belief system, no matter how much they claim sincerity of intention.