Faith Healing on Trial: Miracle or Medicine?

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photo: iStockPhoto

The parents of an 18-month-old girl are set to go on trial soon, charged with first-degree criminal mistreatment. If convicted, they could face a maximum of five years in prison.

They are not being tried over what they did, but rather what they did not do: take their daughter to a doctor.

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Tim and Rebecca Wyland belong to the Followers of Christ Church, a religious sect whose members refuse modern medicine and instead rely on prayer and faith healing. Their daughter, Alayna, had a large benign tumor over her left eye that went untreated until last summer, when she was placed in temporary state custody and began receiving medical treatment. Called a hemangioma, the tumor could have caused Alayna to become blind in the affected eye.

This is of course not the first time that parents have gone on trial for child abuse or neglect for refusing their children medical attention. Though freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the practice of that religion does not give followers license to break the law — especially when the result is injury or death to a child.

According to The New York Times, other members of the Followers of Christ Church have faced trial for criminal neglect or mistreatment:

The church first came under criticism in 1998 after the local news media reported that of the 78 children buried in the church's graveyard, at least 21 could have survived if they had received medical attention. In 2008, the church was in the spotlight again when two of its young members died. One of them, Ava Worthington, 2, died of pneumonia. Her parents were the first Followers of Christ couple to be criminally charged under the changed state laws … Three months later, Ava's teenage uncle, Neil Beagley, died of complications resulting from a blocked urinary tract. His parents were tried and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Other religions, including Christian Scientists and Scientologists, have doctrines that prohibit or discourage modern medicine and therapeutic interventions.

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If prayer and faith healing had a proven track record of success, it could be argued by the Wylands and other defendants that they provided a legitimate, proven alternative to medical care. However, studies of intercessory prayer (petitioning a higher power on another person's behalf) have shown no benefit at all: Patients who are prayed for do no better than patients who are not prayed for.

Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and director of the James Randi Educational Foundation's Science-Based Medicine project, told Discovery News "to the extent that faith healing and prayer have been studied, the evidence shows they do not work.

"This is not surprising, as they are little more than magic and wishful thinking. Forgoing proven medical care for serious treatable conditions is never a good idea, but it is criminal neglect when such decisions are made on behalf of defenseless children. This tragic case is just one of many."

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