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Faith Healers Face Trial After Daughter Nearly Goes Blind

Faith Healers Face Trial After Daughter Nearly Goes Blind

By the time she was six months old, a growth had taken over Alanya Wyland’s face, and threatened to push her eyeball out of its socket.  Her parents, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, did not do what most people would have: take her to the hospital.  Instead, they “anointed her with oils and laid down hands.”  According to the New York Times and the AP, the state of Oregon, where they live, is now prosecuting the Wylands for first-degree criminal mistreatment. 

The Wylands, who belong to the Followers of Christ Church, do not believe in practicing medicine.  The question is whether they are entitled to total religious freedom, even if their belief, as Timothy Wyland told a prosecutor, that “sometimes God heals, and sometimes God lets children die,” leads them to withhold potentially life-saving medical care.

Alanya was taken from her parents, and lived in foster care for two months while she was treated.  She was found to have a hemangioma, a benign tumor that can cause blindness.  She is the most recent in a series of children and teenagers who have been brought to the state’s attention because their parents are members of the Followers of Christ Church. 

In 1998, local media reported that of the 78 children buried in the church cemetery, a shocking 21 could have been saved if they had received any medical attention.  At the time, state prosecutors said that they could not intervene because Oregon laws provided protections for parents whose religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical care for their children.  Later, after this protection was repealed, the father of a two-year-old was sentenced to 60 days in prison when the little girl died of pneumonia.

One of the most vehement voices opposing protections for parents who do not believe in medical care is a former Christian Scientist whose son died of meningitis at 16 months.  “Society should set forth the standard that children should be protected up until the age of 18,” she said. “We just can’t let people do whatever they want in the name of religion.”

But medical ethicists also point out that the state’s efforts to “protect” children may do a great deal of harm, even if the parents actions (or inaction) seem to be putting them at risk.  Jailing parents, says Dr. Douglas S. Diekema, is not the answer.  Neither is taking children from their families. 

“I think you could accomplish getting some of these kids treated by getting a home health nurse,” he said, “and if you need a police officer there, that’s fine. But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don’t understand that.”

NYT reporter Isolde Raferty added that “the women in the congregation dress modestly, in long skirts, and they wear their hair long.”  This somewhat irrelevant piece of information adds to the sense that these people are irresponsible and bizarre, even though as we saw with the French vegan parents charged with neglect earlier this year, the issue of how and if the state should intervene with parents whose ideologies appear to put their children at risk transcends religious belief.

Dr. Diekema raises an excellent point, which is that taking children from their parents is almost always traumatic.  And certainly, the parents do not intend to harm their children.  But it’s also true that had the state not intervened, Alanya Wyland would probably have gone blind.  Children do and have died because their parents do not believe in medical intervention, and while their parents are adults who can refuse care, children do not have the same ability to consent.

Is there a middle ground?  How can the state protect children whose lives could be ended or altered by their parents’ religious beliefs, without causing further harm or trauma?  What do you think the state of Oregon should do in the case of Timothy, Rebecca and Alanya Wyland?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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67 comments

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9:32AM PDT on Jul 30, 2011

We give too much leeway in this country for religion, in medical matters to tax-exempt status. We need licenses to qualify for so many things, but not for having children and child-rearing. I like the suggestion that until age 18, children's rights should be in the providence of the state -- that would save many of these children from their misguided parents' beliefs.

9:06PM PDT on Jun 21, 2011

Of course they should be prosecuted. They would be prosecuted if they neglected the child because they believed their money would be better spent on a flat screen TV. They would be prosecuted if they believed it would be fun to just watch the tumor grow. They would be prosecuted if any other foolish or bizarre belief caused them to allow their daughter to go blind. Why should they not be prosecuted for neglecting their child because of this particular bizarre belief? We give far too much deference to religious beliefs. If god told them to kill the kid outright, would that be okay?

5:10PM PDT on Jun 17, 2011

wow!

1:31PM PDT on Jun 17, 2011

I'm glad to read such sensible comments. If there is a god, he/she gave us wisdom to decide for ourselves.

3:14AM PDT on Jun 9, 2011

On the one hand, sometimes modern mainstream American medicine can do quite a bit--on the other hand, sometimes modern mainstream American medicine is so intent on putting large drug company profits first that it does more harm than good. From about age ten on up, many children have enough understanding of issues surrounding their own health care, that it would be worthwhile to ask the child (out of sight and sound of its parents) whether the child would like to see a modern mainstream American medical doctor or whether the child personally believes that such a doctor would do the child more harm than good.

10:07AM PDT on Jun 8, 2011

These radical religious fanatics have missed part of God's teaching. Yes, I believe in many cases that faith can heal. On the other hand, God also gave man knowledge and wisdom to know what is Right and Wrong. That is where doctors, scientists and modern medicine came from, the wisdom that God has given mankind to heal sickness and to perform operations to save lives. To believe that laying on of hands can heal every medical disease and problem is against the wisdom God gave mankind. He gave man/woman a brain and intelligence to discern Right from Wrong. Allowing a child or adult to suffer and die with out medical treatment is irresponsible and negligent. As one poster said, God gave and gives us the tools to work with. It is up to each of us to be responsible enough to use them. Modern medicine and Medical procedures being among them. No religious group/belief should be allowed to leave a child or adult to suffer and die. The problem is the OLD people who pass on these ridiculous philosophies to their children and dish out punishment if they don't conform.

2:11PM PDT on Jun 6, 2011

ugh, when I read about things like this I get frustrated. Children should be protected no matter what kind of religion the parents practice. If God wanted to heal the sick and dying, then why in the world are there children dying in other countries from lack of medical care and starvation. Doctors are here for a reason. Maybe that's how God works - through them. Ever think of that?!

10:17AM PDT on Jun 6, 2011

These people give Christians a bad rep. I am a Christian and I believe God can heal and preform miracles. However, I also believe in medical care. God gave people the intelligence to learn medical care, to practice medical care and assist individuals back to health.
God gives the tools, you have to be willing to use them.

2:14PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

I agree with Liberty G and the idea of bringing in home help for the child and working with the most natural therapys first, unless there is a cause for concern for the childs health and safety to recieve the most effective hospital treatment needed.

That sounds like a good middle ground to work on for both the family and the law.

6:16AM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

The problem is - while pure faith healing may not be the best option, and it could be dangerous to rely upon it - who is really wise enough to decide on the best treatment?

The fear is that, as has been pointed out by another parent in this discussion, the pronouncements of allopathic practitioners may also lead to extreme medical interventions that could also kill the child.

As the medical system is more and more taken over by those thinking themselves to be Gods and using dangerous and expensive treatments as a norm, this is a real problem.

Perhaps the moderate position could be to allow the state in cases of great risk to the child to order the least toxic and most natural options to be tried, at least before any more invasive choices were considered.

It is still a troubling thing, since the government is so in the pocket of the BigPharma/High Tech crowd and so ignorant of alternative health care, as used in other countries.

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