Opinion

Idaho children deserve lifesaving medical care, regardless of their parents’ religious beliefs

States have wrestled for years with how to direct tax dollars for education in such a way that every child in every school has an equal opportunity to succeed. Funding should follow the student, and where a student lives should not dictate how much money the school receives for that child’s education. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out that way, and the property tax, a portion of which goes to schools, is subject to wild fluctuations from district to district, from city to suburb, from big city to small town. The consequences are clear as everything from teachers’ salaries to school buildings can differ substantially as you move across a state.

Those who have fought the battle of inequitable funding over the years shout a popular refrain that a child’s “accident of birthplace” should not determine the quality of education. A child in the swankiest suburb with high property values should not be entitled to more resources for her education than a child in a small town with a much more modest property tax base. How many times have I heard legislators rail against school funding formulas that discriminate against children from poor neighborhoods with that familiar refrain: The quality of a child’s education should not depend on where the child was born.

As critical as the “accident of birthplace” argument is in paving the way for parity in school funding, its greatest strength comes when applied to cases involving life-and-death decisions affecting children. It is the “accident of birthplace” – the random misfortune to be born in one particular family setting where parents make decisions to deprive their kids of basic medical care – that can be a death sentence for a child. Meanwhile, most children benefit from the latest medical advances thanks to the decisions of their parents and doctors. Thankfully, it’s a rare case we hear of today in which a parent decides not to follow a doctor’s orders on how to save the life of a child, but instead relies on some religious belief that God will either intervene to save the child or it is in God’s hands whether the child lives or dies, and modern medicine should not intervene.

But it does happen and it happens in Idaho, which is one of the states that does not protect children against parents caught up in a religious fervor. Idaho’s Children at Risk Task Force issued its latest Child Fatality Review Team findings last month, which reported five child deaths in which parents delayed or refused medical care or opted out of recommended immunizations for their infant because of personal or religious objections. According to the CFR team, the deaths might have been prevented with timely medical treatment, compliance with scheduled vaccinations and/or proper prenatal care for the mother.

And there are other cases in which medical professionals just don’t have enough information to know the role parents might have played in preventing their children from receiving the appropriate medical care.

National headlines startle us with news that the children of migrants are dying in border patrol facilities and we fret knowing that it is beyond our immediate control. Yet closer to home, there is a way for Idahoans to make a difference in the life of a child. Within our reach at the State Capitol and back home in their districts are legislators who can change an Idaho law that can result in the unnecessary death of a child.

There is only one reason why a Legislature fails to act in a case like this, and that is when they believe there are only a handful of Idaho citizens who care about this issue, so they opt for a politically safe and what might sound like a reasonable course of action: leave any medical decision in the hands of the parents. That all seems to make sense until a child in need of a blood transfusion, a chemotherapy protocol or some other vital medical option is prevented from receiving medical care and dies in the arms of parents who stand by their religious convictions but also stand in the way of a lifesaving procedure or protocol.

It is in cases like this where the state must step in to override the parents’ wishes and authorize medical treatment for a child. A band of intrepid Idahoans whose mission is to make Idaho the safest state in the nation for children has formed the Protect Idaho Kids foundation to raise awareness of the need to repeal Idaho’s faith exemption law, which, strangely enough, is written into the state’s child abuse prevention laws. What they need more than anything else are growing numbers of Idahoans weighing in on the importance of removing this dangerous exemption that prevents children from receiving critical medical care. Join Protect Idaho Kids and learn more about how you can help legislators understand the critical importance of this legislation.

Do not allow the “accident of birthplace” to decide whether a child in Idaho lives or dies.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.

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