Bills that would restrict or protect faith healing in Wisconsin are timely again.
Dale and Leilani Neumann, Wausau-area parents whose 11-year-old daughter died in 2008 after they prayed instead of seeking medical care, are scheduled to appear in Marathon County Circuit Court Jan. 30.
A judge will decide if the Neumanns, Pentecostals convicted of reckless homicide, must spend time in jail. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld their convictions in July, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case in December.
Another state Supreme Court ruling in July involved a 15-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. In agreement with her parents, she refused potentially life-saving blood transfusions at UW Hospital in 2012 until the treatments were ordered by a court-appointed guardian. The girl, identified as Sheila W., asked the high court to decide if she could make her own medical decisions as a “mature minor,” an issue the court didn’t address.
Some say the Neumann ruling made state law less clear about faith healing. Wisconsin, like most states, has a prayer exception to child abuse and neglect statutes. But the state’s homicide statutes, under which the Neumanns were convicted, don’t include such an exemption.
“The ruling all but begged the Legislature to step in and clarify the law,” said Shawn Francis Peters, a UW-Madison lecturer and author of the book, “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.”
Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, reintroduced a bill this month to remove the prayer exception. That would help clarify that the state won’t permit parents to let children die through faith healing, said Alta Charo, a UW-Madison bioethicist.
“We don’t let people martyr somebody else, even if it’s their own child,” Charo said.
Resolutions in the Assembly and Senate would amend the state Constitution to ban the state from “burdening the right of conscience.” That could further protect faith healing and allow a wide range of religious or philosophical objections for various activities, Charo said. Vegetarian clerks at grocery stores could refuse to ring up customers who buy meat, for example, she said.
In the Sheila W. ruling, Justice David Prosser said consideration of a “mature minor” law, which some states have, should fall to the Legislature. There appears to be no attempt to take that up in Wisconsin. Currently, the age of consent is 18.
The Neumann and Sheila W. cases are similar but different. Kara Neumann died from a complication of diabetes after her parents didn’t seek medical care. Sheila W. and her parents sought care but refused blood transfusions, as is common among Jehovah’s Witnesses, for her aplastic anemia until the court order.
At least 400 children have died in the U.S. since 1975 after medical care was withheld on religious grounds, according to Rita Swan, president of Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, in Lexington, Ky.
It’s more common for Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions, though they almost always end up receiving them after a court order, said Dr. Norm Fost, a UW-Madison bioethicist and head of UW Hospital’s ethics committee.
“Any sizable children’s hospital would have a couple of those a year,” Fost said.
In those case, the parents engage the medical and legal systems, Fost said. But with cases like the Neumanns, “they’re taking the law into their own hands,” he said.