Born to Believe

Page 7 of 9

Wagner then tried to impress upon Ruth the gravity of the situation, warning her that she was likely to die without medical help. But Ruth could not be dissuaded. "Ruth told me that she understood, and that if she died it was God's will, and that she was prepared for whatever God had planned for her," Wagner noted.

The deputies contacted the district attorney's office and were told that as long as the baby was undelivered and the mother was still competent and refusing medical treatment, nothing could be done legally. So Wagner informed Ruth that if she changed her mind, the sheriff's department would return and provide her with whatever assistance she needed. "I then spoke with Ruth's father and mother and they assured me that if Ruth decided that she wanted medical care, they would assist her in contacting us," he wrote in his report.

The following day, someone called the sheriff's department and said that the baby had been removed from Ruth's birth canal. Mike Benziger, a deputy coroner, ruled the death a "still birth" and decided not to do an autopsy. The infant was placed in a small, white casket and taken to the sheriff's department, where he was officially declared dead on July 18. "You know, turning that child would have been a piece of cake," says Rayleene Lang, a department spokeswoman.

The deaths of Angela Sweet, Warren Trevette Glory, Billy Ray Reed and Ismael Berger Belebbas are only the tip of the iceberg, says Rita Swan, founder of Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty, or CHILD, an organization based in Sioux City, Iowa. Since 1974, at least 35 children whose parents belong to First Born congregations in Colorado have died, Swan estimates, "And I'm sure we don't catch them all."

Together with physician Seth Asser, Swan wrote a paper published in a 1998 edition of Pediatrics examining 172 child deaths that occurred between 1975 and 1995 to parents of various religious organizations. Of those children, 140 had a better than 90 percent chance of surviving if medical care had been provided, Asser and Swan determined. In addition to the First Born and Christian Scientist churches, other religious groups with significant death rates were the End Time Ministries, Faith Assembly and Faith Tabernacle.

Swan herself was a devout follower of Christian Science when her seventeen-month-old son, Matthew, became gravely ill. A church practitioner was summoned and began "treatments"; when the baby went into convulsions, the practitioner said he was "gritting his teeth" because he was planning "some great achievement." On day twelve, the practitioner told the Swans the child might have a broken bone. Since Christian Scientists are allowed to go to doctors for the setting of broken bones, they rushed their child to the hospital.

Matthew was diagnosed with an advanced case of spinal meningitis. After a week in intensive care, he passed away. From the doctors, Rita Swan learned that all the signs the Christian Science practitioner had viewed as promising were in reality signs of impending disaster. "We knew that Matthew trusted us for everything, and we felt that we had betrayed him," she says.

Swan's anger turned into activism; through her writings, Web site and lawsuits, she has become a powerful force in persuading states to repeal statutes that exempt parents from being prosecuted for murder and manslaughter, or even charged with abuse and neglect, if they rely on only spiritual prayer to heal their sick and ailing children. "Christian Scientists present themselves as upper-middle class, educated, politically conservative, high-status people," she says. "Legislators don't seem to comprehend that what they're asking for is quite fanatical. They are asking for a religious defense to murder."

But Bob Doughtie, who heads the Christian Science committee on publication in Colorado and spent more than two decades as an Air Force chaplain, explains that the church merely wants the law to recognize different approaches to healing. Through prayer alone, thousands of Christian Scientists have been healed of minor injuries, as well as serious ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, he says. Such healings are deeply valued by Christian Scientists because they not only provide immediate physical relief but also a glimpse of the deeper spiritual reality that underlies everything. "We have our failures, just as the medical profession has had failures," acknowledges Doughtie.

Although the courts have consistently recognized the right of an adult to refuse life-sustaining treatment, Swan argues that this right does not mean that parents or guardians can deny a child the right to medical care. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in a 1944: "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."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eileen Welsome