Courts Decide in Clash Between Spiritual Healing and Medical Neglect
Feb 21, 2014

Since we are currently hosting a popular blog series that focuses on the rights of the unvaccinated child, I felt this recent case being reported out of Pennsylvania this week may be relevant to the overall discussion.

schaibleThe case pertains to a couple by the name of Herbert and Catherine Schaible, who are third generation members of the First Century Gospel Church in northeast Philadelphia.  Back in April 2013, the Huffington Post reported that the church’s website included a sermon entitled “Healing – From God or Medicine?” which quoted Bible verses that purportedly forbid Christians from visiting doctors or taking medicine.  It was reported as stating,

“It is a definite sin to trust in medical help and pills; and it is real faith to trust on the Name of Jesus for healing.”

As a result of their participation in this fundamentalist church, the Schaible’s have relied completely on faith healing throughout their own lives and in the care of their nine children.  But this has proven to be disastrous.

In 2009 their two-year old son Kent died from bacterial pneumonia which resulted in the couple being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.  In 2011 they were sentenced to 10 years’ probation and received a court order which mandated they take their children to get annual checkups and call a doctor if a child became ill.

Unfortunately, they failed to adhere to the court order and in 2013 their 8-month-old son Brandon also died of treatable pneumonia.  The couple now face a three and a half to seven-year prison sentence for the religion-based medical neglect of their son.  While six of their seven surviving children are now in foster care or are residing with relatives and are receiving medical, dental, and vision care, these medical precautions come too late to have saved Kent and Brandon.

It’s clear that this couple wholeheartedly believed that they were doing what was best for their children.  In a police statement last year, the Los Angeles Times reported Herbert Schaible as saying,

“We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power.”

So instead of getting medical care, the couple tried to comfort and pray over their son to heal his illness.  But the consequences were arguably avoidable if given the proper medical attention and in the resulting court case the judge rejected the claim that the Schaibles’ religious beliefs “clashed” with child welfare laws and declared the parents responsible.  The Medical Daily explains the legalities of the case as follows:

“While the government protects the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression and practice, it is also responsible for enforcing child welfare laws. Believers of faith healing, like the Schiables, claim a clash exists when they choose other spiritual healing practices rather than traditional medical care to treat children’s illnesses. If the parents’ decision harms the minor, it is up to the courts to decide a balance between these two laws.”

According to CHILD, Inc, an organization founded to protect children from harmful religious and cultural practices, especially religion-based medical neglect, the states that allow a religious defense to most serious crimes against children include: Idaho, Iowa, and Ohio with religious defenses to manslaughter; West Virginia with religious defenses to murder of a child and child neglect resulting in death; and Arkansas with a religious defense to capital murder.

With the Associated Press reporting that approximately a dozen U.S. children die in faith healing cases each year, it’s easy to see how pertinent this case is to the legal conversation is to our society today.

Next week we will resume our special legal blog series by exploring criminal sanctions in cases where a purposely unvaccinated child was seriously injured or killed by a vaccine-preventable disease.  We hope you will follow along and participate in this important conversation. 

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