Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Faith or law?
Currently, there is a story out of Oregon that is making national news. It's a sad story, involving the death of a 15 month-old girl named Ava Worthington.
Ava died in March 2008 due to complications around a cyst on her neck. Her parents, Carl Brent and Raylene Worthington, are members of a church, the Followers of Christ, that practices "faith healing" rather than conventional medicine. They now face charges of manslaughter, brought by the State of Oregon. Oregon law requires that children be provided with medical care, which the Worthington's denied their daughter because it violated their faith.
The precise cause of death is at the crux of the Worthington's culpability. The prosecution contends that Ava, after months of stunted development, died a lingering death due to pneumonia. The defense argues that Ava died quickly due to a sepsis infection that struck before her parents had time to consider whether she should receive conventional medical attention.
Even as I write this, the closing arguments are being made and the jury will sequester to render their verdict.
But, whatever the jury determines, there is a larger question: does the state have a right to override religious rights when the well-being of a child is at stake?
This is not the first time that the State of Oregon has come into conflict with the Followers of Christ. An investigation by the Oregonian newspaper found that 28 of 71 minors buried in the church cemetery had died from easily-treatable conditions such as simple infections.
In 1999, the state of Oregon addressed this issue and decided that the state does indeed have the right to intervene.
While I'm inclined to agree, I think the issue is one of those that should regularly be reexamined.
This story, in many ways, recalls the unfortunate bit of business that occurred in Texas last year, at the Yearning for Zion ranch. There, too, the state intervened and in retrospect it seemed to have overreached. But, in the case of Ava Worthington, the facts are substantiated: a 15 month-old girl died while her parents prayed for her.
It is already well-established throughout the country that parental rights are subservient to the rights of a child. After all, parents may not chain their children to radiators or enslave them or starve them.
But in this case, as in the case in Texas, the state is acting in such a way as to potentially infringe on the First Amendment rights of the parents. Namely, the right of free exercise of religion.
I would certainly agree that the state has no business prosecuting Rastafarians for smoking ganja, or Jehovah's Witnesses for testifying door-to-door.
But Oregon law sets the age of consent, the age at which a person becomes responsible for his or her own behavior, at 18. Even had Ava been 17 years and 11 months old, her parents according to Oregon law, would be compelled to see that she receive medical treatment. If she had been 18, the parents could not be held culpable.
Granted, 18 is an arbitrary age that clearly exposes the limitations of human law. Put it down to human fallibility.