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Faith Healing, Christian Science, and the Medical Care of Children - Dr. Rita Swan

Christian Science was developed in the late 19th century as one of many drugless healing methods. Its founder Mary Baker Eddy repeatedly called it a system of medicine.1 2 She founded her Massachusetts Metaphysical College »for medial purposes,«3 and graduated »doctors of Christian Science.«4 She recommended that doctors become Christian Scientists.5 She applauded when North Carolina law recognized Christian Science practitioners as professional healers and licensed them along with physicians.6 She protested when other licensing boards denied her practitioners rights to »the practice of medicine.«7

The terminology of her system duplicates that of a medical health-care system. The church trains »nurses« and calls its healers »practitioners,« who take »patients,« administer »treatments,« and charge for their services on the scale of local physicians' fees.8 No one else is allowed to treat the patient while the practitioner has the case,9 although the church describes the treatments as prayer. Mrs Eddy evidently expected her practitioners to have some knowledge of the body, for she enjoined them to call the disease by name, argue with it mentally and consult an M.D. when they could not heal their cases or diagnose them; after several lawsuits she recommended that they »decline to doctor infectious or contagious diseases.10-12

Landmark cases in 1916 and 1917 set precedents for the church's legal status.13 Its practitioners were exempted from state licensing under the Medical Practice Act. One judge ruled that religious healers must confine themselves to influencing the patient's mind and not use »agencies of the flesh« or any »methods« that would put them in competition with physicians.14

Since then, I believe, it has been expedient for the Christian Science church to claim total independence from the practice of medicine. No longer does the church tell its practitioners not to »doctor infectious or contagious diseases,« for the practitioners are expected to be ignorant of the symptoms of such diseases. Indeed, the church neither limits the diseases its practitioners may treat nor indicates any duty to refer, although the entire training of practitioners consists of two weeks of religious instruction.

Furthermore, the church tells its practitioners and nurses not to report diseases to health departments,15 even in states that require them to do so. It does tell parents to obey laws on reporting »suspected« diseases, but few would have the knowledge to recognize the reportable diseases, since their church tells them that disease is an illusion, that a medical diagnosis causes disease, and that they should get exemptions (won by church lobbyists in many states) from studying diseases in school.16 17

To maintain its independence from the state, the church even forbids its nurses to give »any physical application beyond the normal measures of cleanliness.«18 Christian Science rejects not only drugs, but even the simplest human measures for relieving suffering or discomfort, such as hot packs, ice packs, enemas, and backrubs. Its nurses cannot recognize the reportable diseases, take a pulse, or use a fever thermometer. It is hard to imagine how a nurse could have the »practical wisdom« to »take proper care of the sick,«19 as Mrs. Eddy directed, and also reject all methods of a medical health-care system.

About 16 states require Christian Science practitioners to report suspected child abuse and neglect. But, here again, the church evades responsibility for reporting sick children. For example, in some booklets of legal advice, the church omits the state's definition of child neglect,20 21 and thus the practitioners (and parents) do not know that lack of medical care is neglect.

Although it rejects responsibility to the state in the foregoing areas, the church wants state recognition. It has testified in Congress that it has a »system of health care.«22 It persuaded the Internal Revenue Service that sums paid to church practitioners, nurses, and sanitariums are deductible medical expenses. Medicare and hundreds of insurance companies (including Blue Cross-Blue Shield in many states) reimburse for the fees charged by Christian Science health-care providers. Christian Science practitioners are authorized to certify sick leave and disability claims for government employees. The church has won religious exemptions from immunizations, premarital and prenatal blood tests, metabolic testing of newborn babies, and silver nitrate drops. In 1974 the church persuaded the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to place the religious immunity proviso in the Code of Federal Regulations.23

Because this proviso became an eligibility requirement for federal funding for the states' child-protection programs, nearly all states today have a version of it in their statutes. According to U.S. House Report 98-159, it means that parents who withhold medical treatment from children because of religious beliefs cannot be charged with abuse or neglect. According to the church, it means that Christian Science treatment has been »recognized by statute« as legal health care for children.24

Although our Constitution forbids the state to establish religion, the Department of Health and Human Services and legislatures have been promoting faith healing, and particularly Christian Science. The California Penal Code, Section 270, defines »treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination, by duly accredited practitioner thereof« as legal »remedial care« for children. In 1973, California obtained manslaughter conviction against parents whose Fundamentalist beliefs directed them to deny their son insulin, while simultaneously recognizing the prayers of a »duly accredited« Christian Science practitioner as proper health care for children.

Ohio's Juvenile Code 2151.421 states:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to define as an abused or neglected child any child who is under spiritual treatment through prayer in accordance with the tenets and practice of a well-recognized religion in lieu of medical treatment, and no report shall be required as to such child.

Its criminal code 2919.22 states that »it is not a violation of a duty of care, protection, or support« when a parent »treats the physical or mental illness or defect« of his child »by spiritual means through prayer alone, in accordance with the tenets of a recognized religious body.«

In my opinion, the state has no business determining which churches are »well-recognized« and passing out special privileges to them. The state should not be giving Christian Science practitioners special authority on the basis of accreditation by their church. For several years, two states even allowed the courts to order Christian Science treatment for any child »whose health requires it.«25 The only health care that the state should recognize as appropriate for children is state-licensed secular health care.

Abuse and neglect laws should be revised so that parents have a duty to provide medical care for sick children, regardless of their religious beliefs; states should have the ability to prosecute parents who refuse to meet their duty. The state should also prosecute faith healers as accessories or principals in manslaughter cases if sick children die as a result of reliance on faith healing alone. After its practitioners were prosecuted in Canada, the Christian Science church advised parents to obtain medic care for seriously ill children.26

The prevailing attitude in legislatures and child-protection agencies is that parents who rely on faith healing should be exempt from abuse and neglect charges, but courts can still order medical treatment for the children. Court orders have protected many children of Jehovah's Witnesses, but they are inadequate to protect children in sects that object to all medical treatment and refuse even to have sick children brought to medical attention. Christian Science practitioners usually have no knowledge of the disease they are treating and do not report disease to the state. How will the courts discover these sick children in time to save their lives?

This January the Department of Health and Human Services issued new regulations requiring states to add »failure to provide medical care« to their definitions of child neglect, thus making it a reportable condition.27 The Christian Science church then asked Congress for a Christian Science amendment to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which would prevent the federal government from »[limiting] the right of a state to determine the health care and treatment a parent may provide his child in the exercise of the parent's freedom of religion.« The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved this amendment last May, but it has yet to be debated by the whole Senate or the House, and there is no clear evidence yet about what the final judgment of Congress will be. I believe that if it is passed it will encourage the Christian Science church to play a hide-and-seek game, telling public officials that their sick children have proper health care when they don't.

The current revival of national interest in faith healing endangers thousands of children in dozens of sect that oppose medical treatment and diagnosis. Medically treatable infectious diseases have killed many of these children in the past few years.

Prayer in support of patients under medical treatment or in support of those whom medical science cannot help is outside of the state's realm of comment. But Christian Science insists that it has an independent system of health are that cannot be combined with medical science. If members choose to go to a doctor, the church directs its practitioners not to pray for them.28 A health-care system should have some responsibilities, both to the state and to its patients. And neither parents nor their counselors should be allowed to deny children medical care in the name of religion.


Dr. Swan is a former devout Christian Scientist whose young son recently died of meningitis after being attended by a Christian Science practitioner. She is now president of an organization called Children's Healthcare Is A Legal Duty (Box 2604/Siuox City 51106/USA).



1. Eddy, MB. Miscellaneous writings. In: Prose works. Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1953:243, 284.

2. Idem. No and yes. In: Prose works.1 p. 4.

3. Idem. Retrospection and introspection. In: Prose works.1 p. 48.

4. Idem. The First Church of Christ, scientist and miscellany. In: Prose works.1 p. 245.

5. Idem. Science and health with key to the scriptures. Boston: Trustees under the will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1934:198.

6. Idem. The First Church of Christ, scientist and miscellany. In: Prose works.1 pp 326-9.

7. Idem. The First Church of Christ, scientist and miscellany. In: Prose works.1 p. 340.

8. Idem. The First Church of Christ, scientist and miscellany. in: Prose works,1 p. 237.

9. Idem. Retrospection and introspection. In: Prose works.1 pp. 87-8.

10. Idem. Science and health with key to the scriptures. Boston: Trustees under the will of Mary Baker G. Eddy. 1934:411-12.

11. Idem. Manual of the Mother Church: the First Church of Christ, scientist. Boston: Trustees under the will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1936:47.

12. Idem. The First Church of Christ, scientist and miscellany. In Prose works.1 p. 226.

13. People vs. Cole, 219 N.Y. 98, 113 N.E. 790 (1916)

14. People vs. Vogelgesang, 221 N.Y. Reports 290 (1917). N.Y. Court of Appeals.

15. Legal rights and obligations of Christian Scientists in Florida. Tallahassee, Fla: Committee on Publications for Florida, 1972:17 (privately printed).

16. Eddy, MB. Science and health with key to the scriptures. Boston: Trustees under the will of Mary Baker C Eddy. 1934:168, 370.

17. Legal rights and obligations of Christian Scientists in California. Garden Grove and San Francisco: Committees on Publications for California, 1981:75-6 (privately printed).

18. Facts about Christian Science. Boston: Christian Science Publishing Society, 1959:9.

19. Eddy, MB. Manual of The Mother Church: the First Church of Christ Scientist. Boston: Trustees under the will of Mary Baker G. Eddy 1936:49.

20. Legal rights and obligations of Christian Scientists in New ""irk New Nork City: Committee un Publications for New York, 1077:9-to (privately printed)

21. Legal rights and obligations of Christian Scientists in Michigan. Detroit: Committee on Publications for Michigan. 1978:23-5 (privately printed).

22. Hearings on HR 3394, HR 3411, and HR 3814 before Subcommittee no. 3 of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, 89th Congress, 1st Session 36 (1965), p. 36.

23. Title 45. CFR 1340.1-2(b) (1).

24. Legal rights and obligations of Christian Scientists in Minnesota. St. Paul: Committee on Publications for Minnesota, 1976:23 (privately printed).

25. Florida statutes, sect. 827.07 and Maine statutes 22.3852, definitions.

26. Reg. vs. Beer (1896), 32 Can L. J. 416; Rex vs. Elder (1925), Can., Manitoba Reports, Vol. 35, 161-75.

27. Department of Health and Human Services. Child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment program; final rule. Fed Regist. 1983; 48:3698-704.

28. Eddy, MB. Retrospection and introspection. In: Prose works.1 p. 87.


Reprinted by permission of The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 309, No. 26, pp. 1639-41. 23 December 1983.
No Exemption for Failed Faith Heating

The Senate in July refused to pass an amendment to the Child Abuse Treatment and Protection Act which would have allowed states with religious exemption laws to continue to receive federal funds for abuse and treatment. The amendment was turned back in good part thanks to the lobbying of Rita Swan, a Sioux City, Iowa, college teacher; Sen. Orrin Hatch had introduced the amendment at the request of the Christian Science Church, and he continued to push for its passage even though a study by the non-partisan Congressional Research office showed that it had no Constitutional grounds, granting as it did special privileges to religious denominations that practice faith healing. The office of Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who worked against the amendment, said that Sen. Hatch finally withdrew the exemption request at the behest of the Christian Science Church which feared that a public debate might bring the church under closer scrutiny.

Reprinted by permission of The American Family Foundation's The Cult Observer, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 15, September 1984.