Thirty-two years ago, Rita Swan and her husband walked into a Michigan hospital with their nearly dead baby in her arms. The decision to take their son was made after days of pitting their religious beliefs against the medical needs of their young child.
After a week in the intensive care unit, 16-month-old Matthew died of a strain of meningitis, a disease treatable with early detection through antibiotics. Swan and her husband left the spiritual healing of the Christian Science Church, to which they belonged, behind.
"Christian Science practitioners kept telling us that our fear was making him sick, that our false sense of parental responsibility was holding back his healing," Swan says. "We stuck with our faith for twelve days. Then I couldn't take it anymore."
Now, Swan crisscrosses the country advocating for the rights of children as the executive director of Iowa-based Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, or CHILD. The March 2008 death of Madeline "Kara" Neumann, 11, from untreated diabetes after her parents chose to pray for her rather than seek medical help, has again drawn Swan to Wisconsin to lobby against a bill being pushed by members of her former faith.
In the months since the young girl's death, Swan has been working with state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, to remove the religious exemption in the state's criminal code on child abuse and neglect that allows parents to provide spiritual treatment rather than medical care when it is needed. Meanwhile, the Christian Science Church has been working with another Democrat, Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee, on a bill that would remove the very same exemption. But that's where the similarities end.
Taylor also is looking to add a religious exemption to the medical practices section of the criminal code for those who use spiritual healing, prayer or religious treatment in lieu of medical treatment. State prosecutors, health care professionals and child welfare advocates, among others, are voicing strong concern that this new exemption would further harm children by extending the religious exemption to an even broader category of severe crimes, including homicide, abuse, recklessly endangering the safety of a child and criminal neglect. For that reason, these groups are backing Berceau.
Dr. Barbara Knox, the medical director of the University of Wisconsin Child Protection Program at UW American Family Children's Hospital, says she seldom gets involved in the legislative process, but because of the medically neglected children she sees on a daily basis, she had to speak out against Taylor's bill.
"The state of Wisconsin must balance religious freedom with protecting its children," says Knox, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UW-Madison. "Taylor's bill tips the scale too far, allowing the most vulnerable citizens of the state to pay the ultimate price through either serious injury or even death."
In the race to pass legislation, Taylor is in the lead. While Berceau's proposal has a more diverse group of supporters, it has not yet been introduced. Taylor's bill, introduced earlier this month, recently got a public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Taylor chairs. Of those who attended, 51 registered in favor of Taylor's bill; five registered against. All 18 people who spoke in favor of Taylor's bill identified themselves as members of or attorneys for the Christian Science Church.
Swan will be in Milwaukee and Madison this week in hopes of turning the momentum and attention toward Berceau's proposal.
"I'm hoping the discussion doesn't go away," Swan says. "Hopefully our bill will have more credibility with legislators."
Joe Farkas, the media and legislative liaison for the Christian Science Community in Wisconsin, which includes 34 churches and societies, says the church has been lobbying hard to rid Wisconsin law of the religious exemption for child abuse and neglect ever since Madeline Neumann's parents tried to use it in their defense. The Neumanns, who were not Christian Scientists but who believed in faith-based healing, were found guilty of second-degree reckless homicide earlier this year.
Farkas says that because the church was involved in having the religious exemption become part of Wisconsin law in 1987, the church felt they should be involved in having it repealed.
"There has been a cloud over that statute ever since the Neumanns tried to use it," he says. "It was never intended to be a shield for people to act irresponsibly."
Farkas says the new religious exemption being proposed under Taylor's bill is necessary to ensure that parents who choose prayer or spirituality to heal a sick child will be allowed to air those beliefs before a jury if charged with a crime. He says he knows of cases where this information was not allowed in the courtroom.
"The more information a jury has on a person's thoughts and words the better able a jury is to determine if their actions were responsible enough," Farkas says. "This bill is about fundamental fairness."
Even without Taylor's law on the books, however, Dale Neumann, Madeline Kara Neumann's father, testified for roughly three hours about his faith during his recent trial.
"The whole trial had a significant amount of religious testimony," says LaMont Jacobson, the Marathon County assistant district attorney who tried the Neumann case. "It was really quite unavoidable."
It is the difficulty in trying cases like the Neumann's in the future that has prosecutors like Dane County Assistant District Attorney Robert Kaiser troubled by what Taylor is pitching. Specifically, she is adding a new religious exemption into state law by inserting nine faith-based "affirmative defenses" into the state's criminal code. These defenses would have to be considered if a parent or guardian of a child withheld medical treatment for the child in favor of spiritual healing or prayer. Other affirmative defenses recognized in Wisconsin include intoxication, defense of property, self-defense and coercion.
"In other words, these defenses fall along the lines of ‘I had to do it,' or ‘Somebody made me do it,'" says Kaiser, who favors Berceau's proposal. In this case, that someone or something would be someone's decision to use spiritual healing, prayer or religious treatment instead of medical care.
Taylor's bill would require a jury to decide, among other things, if a parent or a child's guardian should have recognized a child's symptoms as life threatening and to determine how long the child was experiencing the symptoms. A jury also would have to consider the family's prior experience in relying on medical treatment and prior experience in relying on spiritual healing, prayer or religious treatment. The likelihood that medical treatment would have eliminated the condition is also a stipulation outlined in Taylor's bill for a jury to consider.
Berceau says Taylor's bill is laying out numerous standards that are impossible to answer. "Even when you're talking about treating cancer with chemotherapy, you don't really know the likelihood the chemo will work until you get the treatment," Berceau says. "What she's proposing puts an impossible burden on the court to prove something that can't be proven."
Kaiser says it would become impossible to convict any parent, whether or not their religion is truly a factor or not.
"Do not think that for one minute people who are abusing their kids will not use this. Taylor's bill will end up protecting people who will lie to us and then go and lie to a jury," Kaiser says. "I will have to disprove what they say beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Kaiser isn't alone in that concern.
"It would be next to impossible to find a parent guilty," says Shawn Peters, author of "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law," and a lecturer in the UW-Madison School of Education. "Taylor is writing into law the top nine list of defenses invoked by spiritual healing. I find it hard to conceptualize a worse bill than the bill being introduced by Sen. Taylor."
Taylor says she is open to changing her bill so that it doesn't weaken current law or make it impossible for someone to be prosecuted. She adds she is having a hard time understanding why people feel it will create that situation, though.
She says her bill clearly states that prayer and spiritual healing are acceptable forms of treatment only until it becomes clear medical treatment is necessary to save the health or life of a child.
"If a child died, I don't think someone will not be prosecuted if it is clear the child died from a medical condition that could have been cured with medical attention," Taylor says. "I am fine with you having your faith. But parents need to know there is a line that can't be crossed."
While many mainstream religions recognize the power of prayer, the Christian Science Church, established in the mid-1800s by Mary Baker Eddy, believe in the power of spiritual healing and prayer. Prayers, in some cases, are performed for a price by a certified prayer practitioner. Just as a percentage of a medical bill is reimbursed by an insurance company, so are the costs of prayers, in some states and under some policies. Despite the reliance on prayer, members of the Christian Science Church are not discouraged from seeking medical help.
Many members of the Christian Science faith attested to that fact at last week's public hearing. Robin Engel, who attends a Christian Science Church in Fort Atkinson, says her own children and grandchildren have been healed of medically examined concerns including hearing and speech impairments and a contagious skin disease through the practical use of Christian Science. She adds her faith does not prohibit medical treatment, nor do Christian Scientists think less of church members who use doctors.
"Christian Scientists are responsible parents who pray with and for our children because it works," Engel says.
Jacobson, the Marathon County attorney who tried the Neumann cases, says that he has read what both lawmakers are proposing and favors Berceau's version. He says for the most part, criminal cases involve proving intent or knowledge that one's actions were causing a crime.
"At best, Taylor's bill is shifting the fact-finding task to the court," Jacobson says. "Really, all this boils down to is the protection of children. When you have a child that is obviously distressed, you need to seek medical help."
He says it was not an easy decision for the Marathon County District Attorney's Office to prosecute the Neumanns. He suspects the same conversations are occurring in the Capitol among lawmakers debating whether or not to sign on to one of the proposals.
"There will always be that tension between what an adult can do and how much control the government can have in a child's life," he says. "Getting involved in anything religious is a slippery slope and getting involved in anything involving parenting is a slippery slope. This debate combines both."