Many years ago, also in Oregon, my grandmother broke her hip. Coming home, a teenager, I found her unable to get up and helped get her to bed. But she refused any medical help because of her faith in Christian Science. Nothing would get through to her except her powerful belief in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. Something treatable went untreated, and after a month, the house overpowering with the scent of gangrene, she died a very unpleasant death. Even at the end, she cried out for practitioners to come to her aid, but they avoided her and us like the plague.
The faith she clung to was nowhere to be seen, yet we never considered forcing her to accept medical attention. It was simply outside what we could imagine to be the role of the government. This story refreshes my memory.
Who wins in a battle between parental rights and the criminal justice system? The child, at least in cases where solid science is used to prove that routine medical treatment was withheld from a child by the parents.
Unfortunately for Ava Worthington, none of this matters. It’s too late. The 15-month-old Oregon City, Ore., girl died at home on March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. According to The Associated Press, doctors say the pneumonia and the infection could have been prevented or treated with antibiotics. Her parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, are accused of using prayer instead of medical care to try to cure Ava. Both pleaded not guilty on Monday in
Clackamas County to charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
We would not pretend to have the slightest understanding of what this couple is feeling after the death of their daughter. But we know that providing routine medical care to a child is just as basic a parental responsibility as providing routine nutrition. Withholding either is abuse, and although the legal outcome of this case remains to be determined, it appears appropriate for officials to file charges against the couple.
Oregon lawmakers cracked down on faith-healing deaths nine years ago, and this is the first such case since then. But it’s not the first time the Worthingtons’ church, Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church, has been linked to deaths of children. According to a 1998 AP story, an investigation by The Oregonian revealed that of 78 children buried in the church’s cemetery since 1955, at least 21 could have been saved with medical care.
In Washington state, officials at the state attorney general’s office and the Department of Social and Health Services say no child death in recent years has been linked to faith-healing practices.
It’s important to view this case independently. Linking it to other end-of-life cases such as the Terri Schiavo case or other beginning-of-life issues such as Roe v. Wade is a fool’s errand. The question is singular and simple: Did Ava die because her parents withheld routine medical care? Taking that question into a courtroom in search of a legal answer is not only proper, it’s the fulfillment of Oregon’s obligation to Ava.