Ethics and Religion Discussion: Should a Court Override Religious Beliefs?

Regarding a 2013 case in which the parents of an Amish girl stopped chemotherapy in favor of “natural medicine” which they say is just as effective if it is God’s will. A judge sided with the parents, but an appeals court sided with the hospital seeking a guardian ad litem to continue treatment. Should religious principles be ignored by a court if they lead to the death of a child?

Linda Knieriemen, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I’m more comfortable asking other questions than offering answers:

  • When is the severity of a treatment worse than death?
  • When death is the alternative, is the refusal of treatment a rejection of the sanctity of life or an acceptance of death?
  • Who decides who “plays God”?
  • Just because a treatment for cancer exists, should it be mandatory in all cases? What are the valid reasons for not treating? Pain? Future side effects? Financial limits?
  • Does a 10 year old child have the emotional, spiritual, intellectual maturity to make this decision alone? In this case, the parents and the child agreed. And if the 10-year-old wanted the treatment and the parents refused permission, then how would the court have ruled? Perhaps then the hospital should pursue the matter in terms of the rights of the child.

“I believe the [first] the court ruled appropriately.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (minister of outreach) of the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“In most cases, I would trust the courts to make the right decision regarding those who claim religious privilege to deny medical treatment to children in favor of faith healing or opposition to blood transfusions. But I I don’t see this story as being about Amish beliefs specifically, I understand it’s about parents wanting to keep their child safe from intense suffering with no guarantee of a positive outcome.

“I can’t imagine the pain this must cause these parents, knowing that there is a good chance that their child will not survive this very serious disease. Along with this realization, they know that any possibility of Overcoming this disease will result in excruciating pain for the patient. I would not pretend to judge parents at this most vulnerable time.”

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

“In Islam we have a principle that the preservation of life is one of the highest purposes of Islamic law and as such it can be used to suspend certain rules. For example, eating pork is not allowed in Islam but if someone is going to starve and nothing else is available then this rule is suspended but in a secular diverse country should we allow that choices being made on behalf of children by people who do not adhere to the principle that the preservation of life can overrule the rules of their religion? This is a difficult question that underlines the real difficulties of having a pluralistic society My gut feeling is that a functioning society will need certain standards that all parents are held to when it comes to making choices for their children, regardless of their religious beliefs.These standards must be tolerant and take into account the diversity of beliefs, but must also ensure that children are protected against irresponsible decisions by their guardians. In any society, tolerance must exist within the framework of certain rules and limits.

Reverend Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

“I don’t think this case is about ‘religious principle’. It seems to me that these are parents, and their children, who were not sufficiently informed about the side effects of chemotherapy. The judge handling the case sided with the parents on the hospital. The parents were unwilling to let their child suffer the side effects of life-saving chemotherapy. They wanted to take a break from medical treatment in favor of “natural” faith-based methods. Parents reportedly said they were willing to try chemotherapy again if ‘natural’ methods didn’t work.

“I believe that any religious principle that leads to the suffering and death of a child, or any human being, must be struck down by a court. Any religious principle that causes the death of a child is more than likely a misunderstanding, misapplication of scripture and tradition.The misinterpretation of a religious principle by an individual should not be allowed to cause suffering and death to a child.

My answer:

When an adult makes a choice based on their religious faith that is harmful, as long as they have the capacity to make decisions, they should be allowed to do so. When an adult makes choices for another person, those choices must reflect the values ​​of that third person. The problem in this case is that the third party is a minor child and the religious faith will more than likely harm the child. I hesitate to assert the morality of a religious choice that negates modern science and medicine and harms a child who is not old enough to have the full capacity to freely choose that religious path.

This column answers questions of ethics and religion by putting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders from the Grand Rapids area. We would love to hear about common ethical questions that arise in your day as well as religious questions that you have. Tell us how you solved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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