Thursday, March 27, 2008


Child protection and the First Amendment

You’ve probably heard, by now, about the 11-year-old girl in Wisconsin who died from diabetes while her parents prayed for her rather than getting medical help. The police aren’t sure, yet, whether to charge the parents with any crime, and the couple has three other children who are not being taken away.

This is a difficult situation that brings up a serious constitutional issue. The First Amendment guarantees the “free exercise” of religion. Where is the balance point between that freedom and the safety of children who aren’t able to make certain choices for themselves? I might personally stand on the side of calling these people unfit parents and protecting their children in some way... but I’m also a strong First Amendment supporter and I know that giving up pieces of the rights it confers sets a dangerous precedent.

It also touches a more general question of what right one has to make the same decisions for one’s children as one would make for oneself, regardless of the motivation for the decision. To what extent are they your children, and to what extent are they the state’s children? Can the state, morally or legally — and are the answers different? — compel you to educate your children? To vaccinate them — the subject of a current raging controversy? To allow them to play outside? To provide medical care?

At some point, children will likely agree with everything their parents are doing. In this case, the children probably think that the prayers were the right thing, that God would heal the girl, that there was no need for doctors... because they trust their parents, and believe what they taught them. But what happens to those children when they become young adults? Can they really be considered to be making their own, informed, adult decisions, when they were already indoctrinated with the answers as impressionable children, too young to think for themselves?

In that regard this even blends into the issue of teaching evolution in science class. Most states demand that children be taught a certain curriculum, whether or not the parents want that. So we’ve already said that the First Amendment doesn’t allow you to keep your children uneducated, nor to educate them only in religious ways.

And then there’s the question I always have to ask, when someone says that God will heal us if we pray for it: Why do you think that God hasn’t chosen to use a doctor as a means to answer your prayer?

1 comment:

lidija said...

I think there comes a time when every intelligent person has to decide just how far their cultural relativism should go. For me, once the cultural practices clash with human rights, that is as far as it goes. This would be a pretty clear-cut case. The kid has the right to live.