Guest Opinions

Yes, there is a solution to child medical neglect

Protesters stacked symbolic child-sized coffins at the Idaho Capitol in February 2018, seeking repeal of a faith-healing exemption for parents who deny their children medical care.
Protesters stacked symbolic child-sized coffins at the Idaho Capitol in February 2018, seeking repeal of a faith-healing exemption for parents who deny their children medical care. The Spokesman-Review

During this legislative session, Idahoans marched to the Capitol with 183 child-sized coffins representing Idaho children who have died in sects opposed to medical care. This number of deaths is certainly an underestimate since many children in sects that shun medical care are born at home, don’t have birth certificates and don’t have their deaths investigated by county authorities – because medical neglect of these children is legal in Idaho.

In 1971, Idaho law was changed to allow medical neglect of children through a religious exemption. The direct result of this law is that injured and sick children in Idaho are allowed to suffer and die from treatable illnesses, such as pneumonia and gastroenteritis (stomach flu), and injuries.

Advances in medical treatment and prevention have resulted in a 90 percent reduction in death rates in U.S. children since 1935 and 50 percent reduction just since 1980. Yet children in these sects are denied the benefits of these advances. Many of the 183 children honored in the march had common infectious diseases, diabetes or other conditions for which treatment is routine.

Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State address on Jan. 8 reminded us of government’s role in “helping individual citizens realize their full potential” and the government’s responsibility to provide “equal protection under the law” as called for in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

But since 1971, Idaho children have been denied equal protection. Idaho law gives parents’ beliefs against medical care greater importance than a child’s right to life and health.

In a Statesman article published after the march, Sen. Dan Foreman was quoted as saying legislators had “agoniz[ed] over this almost to the point of tears,” but “there is no solution.” Hogwash.

The 1971 Idaho Legislature created this problem and now the Legislature must fix it. First, they must choose to protect children who have no voice from the flesh-and-blood consequences of medical neglect. Quite simply, the law should return to pre-1971 language in place since Idaho was a territory; it required parents to provide “necessary food, clothing, shelter, or medical attendance” for their children without a religious exemption.

Legislators need to act on behalf of people like Willie Hughes. As a child, he watched two little brothers suffer and die, and he himself suffered from lack of medical care for childhood illness and injury, only to have his parents get medical care for their own illnesses. The Ada County coroner also testified about the death of a child from untreated diabetes based on religion grounds, only to find out much later that the father treated his own diabetes with insulin. This is child neglect, pure and simple.

Some Idaho legislators have said parents should not be criminalized for their religious beliefs. I agree. But when a person’s belief turns into actions that directly result in physical harm, permanent disability or death to a child, the line is crossed and the child’s right to life must take precedence.

In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Prince v. Massachusetts, stated that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death. . . . Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

Parenting is an awesome responsibility that should include the duty for all parents to provide children with the necessities of life, including medical care.

Legislating is also an awesome responsibility. The Idaho Legislature should do their duty to protect all Idaho children equally and remove religious exemptions to medical care. Too many children have died already due to legislative inaction.

Dr. Carolyn Bridges, M.D., is a retired public health physician who works part time as a medical writer/editor and full time as a mom. She lives in Boise.