Jerry Coyne on Faith Healing

Denying children vaccines just one part of the problem

Jerry Coyne at The Amazing Meeting 2013
Jerry Coyne at The Amazing Meeting 2013

But denying children potentially life-saving vaccines is just one part of the problem; I’d like to eliminate even more exemptions: those now enshrined in many laws permitting religious parents to withhold scientific medical care from their children in favor of faith healing.

Professor Jerry Coyne

A couple of days ago I discussed briefly Dr. Jerry Coyne’s new book Faith vs Fact. Yesterday he published an article in Slate, in which he made the statement above. I very strongly agree with it.

As you can guess from his picture, Coyne is an outspoken man. As a biologist, he is intimately familiar with both health and disease. He promotes vaccines to prevent diseases. He believes American children should be required to have their vaccines before starting to school, with no exception except for medical reasons. Personal philosophy or religion, he says, should not be an excuse for endangering the public health.

Jerry Coyne says it’s time to eliminate religious exemptions from medical care for children

Forty-eight states—all except West Virginia and Mississippi—allow religious exemptions from vaccination. (California would be the third exception if its bill becomes law.) A similar deference to religion applies to all medical care for children. As the National District Attorneys Association reports, 43 states give some kind of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.

According to Coyne,

Some states allow religious exemptions from required testing of newborns for metabolic disorders, such as the inability to break down fats or amino acids, that can kill an untreated child but are perfectly treatable if caught early.

To illustrate his point, Dr. Coyne tells of a teenage girl who needed medical help for “fainting spells.” Her father refused to get her to a doctor, so she asked teachers for help. Apparently getting no help from her teachers either, she ran away from home; but she was found and returned to her father. Three days later she died from a ruptured appendix.

Many of the same states also allow exemptions from giving newborns hearing tests, eye drops to prevent blindness from herpes infections, testing children for lead levels in their blood, and even “learning about disease in school.”

In perhaps the most bizarre and potentially dangerous law, public school teachers in California can legally refuse to be tested for tuberculosis on religious grounds.

Christian scientists, Scientologists, faith healers, and little fundamentalist cults scattered all over the place are protected by these laws, while their children sometime die in agony. This is not right, and should not be permitted in any civilized country.

Infants and people who cannot have vaccinations because of medical reasons are put at risk by those who refuse to have them (or let their children have them) because of their superstitions, both religious and otherwise. Coyne discusses these problems at length in his new book.

Vaccinations should be required in all states; and children should be protected from parents who refuse them necessary medical treatment on ANY grounds and let them die or suffer from untreated cancer, diabetes, or other disease.

Parents do not own their children, and parental rights are not infinite. A parent may make his or her own decisions about healthcare, but he or she must not be permitted to make such decisions for a child and let the child suffer or die without effective medical treatment because of the parent’s religion or philosophy. Evening cases where a child himself refuses medical treatment for religious reasons, it must be remembered that a child cannot make mature decisions; and a court should determine whether or not the treatments continued. Religion or other superstitions should not be a factor.

See also Dr. Coyne’s recent article in The Scientist.


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