Please note that I have updated and added some informational notes at the bottom of this article with information I’ve recently come across, thanks to some Facebook acquaintances (December 22, 2013).
This past week, this article was published in the Ithaca Journal in Ithaca, New York, USA. It has also been picked up by a number of other newspapers in the United States also owned by the paper’s parent company, Gannett. I am certain it is causing many a conniption fit with the Committee on Publication department at The Mother Church, and well it should. It tells the tragic story of Liz Heywood who, as a teenager, suffered from a bone infection that caused one of her knees to fuse, forcing her into a lifetime of pain and difficulty with walking. Ultimately as an adult, she voluntarily underwent an above-knee amputation of the leg to relieve the discomfort and increase her mobility. The condition she suffered from is routinely treated successfully with simple antibiotics, and doctors have remarked to her that they only usually would see situations such as hers in people who contracted the disease before the advent of antibiotics, or in places where antibiotics are not readily available.
I have had the pleasure of getting to know Ms. Heywood on-line as a friend on Facebook, and do hope to meet her in person sometime. She has remarked to me and others a few times that the practitioner who initially ‘treated’ her condition often talked in his Association addresses of her ‘healing’ of the bone disease. Wow. She was healed? Imagine being a teenager and confined to bed for a year while your leg swells up, you’re in pain, and pus is draining from it. Ultimately, the swelling goes away, as does some of the pain, but your knee is fused. You can’t walk normally, and when you do walk, it is painful. All the while, the condition could have been completely cured with a simple course of common antibiotics, as you find out later in life. That’s NOT a healing. That is a tragedy. It is religiously induced child abuse. It’s complete bullshit to claim that this was a healing. The only healing I’d credit here is that she didn’t die. It has had a profound and tragic influence on her life beyond the physical damage inflicted. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and has consequently had difficulty in holding jobs for much of her life. As a result, she lives below the poverty line, and only is able to work part-time, getting by otherwise on state disability benefits.
What’s even worse is that the laws of the US state of Massachusetts, where she lived at the time, sanctioned this neglect of proper medical care due to the fact that her parents were seeking spiritual care. The exemption at one time read as follows: “A child shall not be deemed to be neglected or lack proper physical care for the sole reason that he is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual means alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof.”1
Ironically, since Massachusetts is where The Mother Church is located, there no longer is such an exemption in the state laws regarding child neglect–it was repealed in the aftermath of the death of a child in a Christian Science family–a child who died of a bowel obstruction, which could have been very easily treated by a surgeon. Massachusetts is now one of the few states that does not have an exemption–The Mother Church has actively tried to restore an exemption in the form of an ‘affirmative defence’* provision in the criminal law. So far, they have been unsuccessful despite a very concerted effort, including a grassroots campaign that has recruited many Christian Scientists in Massachusetts (and there are quite a few there), and the strong support of the state representative whose district includes the area where The Mother Church is located. As of 2010, 30 U.S. states still have exemptions to medical care for children on their law books–at one time nearly all states did–they did so in order to obtain needed federal funding.2 This occurred due to a United States federal government law known as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, passed in 1974. The requirement for the religious exemption was apparently placed in this law due to the influence of key members of the Nixon administration who were Christian Scientists.** This provision in federal law that mandated the state laws was wisely repealed in 1983.3 Fortunately, to my knowledge, no such exemptions exist in laws outside of the United States.
“Christian Scientists make their own decision regarding their health care,” said Paul Hannesson, the Christian Science Committee on Publication for New York State.
“There is no church protocol that requires them to use a spiritual solution.
“Many Christian Scientists do rely on prayer and their spiritual understanding of what that means in terms of their health because it works for them,” Hannesson said.
“However, the church doesn’t take a position that they must use that solution in all cases to be a member of the church.”
(Paul Hannesson, Christian Science Committee on Publication for New York)
What Mr. Hannesson says here is all well and good–and it is true, but the reality of Christian Science culture and practice is far different than the nicely worded rhetoric the Mother Church offers as an excuse for this kind of tragedy. No, the Mother Church does not dictate the healthcare decisions of its members, but, and this is a big but, the peer pressure within the Christian Science movement to not seek medical treatment is tremendous. My own father endured plenty of scorn when he occasionally sought medical treatment. My Mom treated her occasional trips to the doctor like secret missions on behalf of the CIA–not a word was to ever be spoken of it.
Also, throughout her writings, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church speaks against the mixing of Christian Science and medical care, and of the superiority of Christian Science over modern medicine as a healing remedy. She spoke of “Only through radical reliance on Truth can scientific healing power be realized.” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 167). This statement is at the root of most of the tragedies that have befallen Christian Scientists and their families–many have gone down to horrible deaths radically relying on Christian Science for healing that never comes–I have seen it first-hand in my own family. It is like a partially loaded gun pointed at the hapless victim–a few chambers are empty, and you never know when the hammer will fall on a loaded one.
It is also worth mentioning that while the Mother Church may leave healthcare decisions up to the individual’s own choice, many branch churches and ancillary organizations related to Christian Science–these make up much of the ‘culture’ of Christian Science, allow no such freedom. Principia (College and School) will not admit any student who is under medical care, and those who seek medical care after being admitted are asked to leave until they are no longer under such care. Many of the Christian Science summer camps also have similar policies. Principia even goes so far as to require this ‘radical reliance’ on Christian Science of its staff and faculty. Many branch churches, including one that I was once a member of will not admit for membership anyone who seeks medical care.
So, in the real world of Christian Science culture and practice there really isn’t an easy choice to seek medical care. You are subject to scorn, ostracism, and outright expulsion from some of the very institutions that often form the bedrock of your life. It’s as if the Church has built the gun, loaded it, and pointed it at your head, but they leave it up to you to decide if you want to pull the trigger–after all, it’s the member’s own choice. What a cop out!
To call what happened to Liz Heywood a healing is disingenuous at best, and as I see it, it is the most gross insult to her and the trauma she has experienced–this just piles it on more, in fact. If I was her, and I believe she feels the same way, I would be deeply hurt and angry to know that the practitioner who was on her case was touting her case as a healing. What complete and utter bullshit! For me, this calls into question other claims of ‘healing’ by Christian Scientists. How many are cases like Liz’s? Probably many others–hopefully with not such tragic results. Most, I think, could more likely be credited to the body’s own natural healing abilities.
* An ‘affirmative defence’ provision (for ‘spiritual’ healing) allows for a defendant in a trial to offer as a defence to the charges being brought against them that they were practicing spiritual healing in accordance with their religious practices. It does not, as the previous exemption did, prevent parents who neglect to give their children needed medical care from being brought to trial, it offers them a possible defence.
** It must be noted that there is no direct evidence available to support the widely held belief that key members of the Nixon administration who were Christian Scientists were responsible for the placement of the exemption requirement in the original CAPTA legislation. What is not in doubt is the fact that the Christian Science Church did lobby for this provision and for its continued preservation until it was finally repealed, and to this day the Church continues to actively lobby for exemptions in law for the practice of Christian Science, and for provisions in law and insurance policies for the practice of Christian Science as an alternative form of health care and for it to be recognized as such. It is worth noting that between 2010 and 2013, the Christian Science Committee on Publication has spent nearly $1 million ($940,000) on lobbying at the federal level in the United States on two issues: health care and insurance.4
1 Heimlich, Janet. Breaking Their Will – Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. 2011. Print.
4 “Open Secrets: Christian Science Cmte on Publication“. OpenSecrets.org. The Center for Responsive Politics. n.d. Web. 22 December 2013. <http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000064603&year=2013>