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Of Prayer and Penicillin

OPB | April 2, 2008 midnight | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:40 p.m.

How do you navigate the intersection of culture, faith, medicine, and law?

Faith healing is back in the news.

In 1999, after several children in Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church died from conditions that could have been treated medically, the state legislature removed a religious defense from criminal negligence statutes. In particular, the new law meant that religious beliefs — including the belief that prayer, not medical intervention, is the appropriate way to heal sick children — was no longer a viable legal defense. (The legislative minutes from the bill’s public hearing makes for interesting reading.)

Nine years later, prosecutors have pursued criminal charges under this 1999 law for the first time. The case involves Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Marie Worthington, whose 15-month-old daugther Ava died last month from bacterial pneumonia and a blood infection. A state medical examiner found that both conditions could have been treated with antibiotics. According to chief deputy district attorney Greg Horner, as quoted today in The Oregonian, the grand jury has charged that the couple’s “failure to provide medical care caused the death of their daughter.”

This case may be new, but many of the questions it brings up have been with us for a while. At the heart of the issue is the tension between religious freedom and child welfare. But it also resonates with other sticky questions at the intersection of medicine, culture, and state law, such as the Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s unsuccessful attempt to require that young girls be given the HPV vaccine. Or mandatory immunizations in public schools (and advice about how to avoid unwanted immunizations.)

Have you had to deal with these issues in your own life — as a religious adherent, or a doctor, or a patient? Have you chosen to seek medical care for your children as a result of Oregon’s 1999 law? How do you personally navigate your faith, your approach to medicine, and your children’s health?

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