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 Later, after this protection was repealed, the father of a two-year-old was sentenced to 60 days in prison when the little girl died of pneumonia.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?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.