The Rapidian

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

Should religious principles be overridden by a court if they will lead to the death of a child?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved 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].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

Regarding a 2013 case in which an Amish girl’s parents stopped chemotherapy in favor of ‘natural medicine’ which they say is equally 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 overridden by a court if they will lead to the death of a child?

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I am more comfortable raising further questions than offering answers: 

  • When is the severity of a treatment worse than death? 
  • When death is the alternative, is refusal of treatment a rejection of the sacredness of life or the acceptance of death?
  • Who gets to decide who is ‘playing God’? 
  • Just because a cancer treatment exists, must it be required in every case? What are valid reasons to not treat? Pain? Future side effects? Financial limitations? 
  • Does a 10 year old have the emotional, spiritual, intellectual maturity to make this decision alone? In this case, the parents and the child were in agreement. What if the 10 year old wanted the treatment and the parents refused permission, how then would the court have ruled? Perhaps then the hospital should pursue the case in terms of children’s rights. 

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

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“In most cases I would trust courts to make the correct decision over those who claim religious privilege to deny medical treatment to children in favor of faith healing or opposing blood transfusions. But I don’t see this story as being about Amish beliefs in particular. I understand this to be about parents wishing to keep their child free of intense suffering with no guarantee of a positive outcome. 

“I cannot fathom the pain it must be causing these parents, knowing that there is every good chance that their child will not survive this very serious ailment. Along with that realization they know any possibility of defeating this disease will mean excruciating pain for the patient. I would not presume to judge the parents in 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 preservation of life is one of the higher goals 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 die out of starvation and nothing else is available, then that rule is suspended. But in a diverse secular country, should we allow for choices to be made on the behalf of children by people who do not hold the principle that the preservation of life can overrule rules of their religion? This is a difficult question that points to the real difficulties of having a pluralistic society. My instinct is to say 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 should be tolerant and take into account the diversity of belief but also should make sure that children are protected from irresponsible decision making by their caretakers. In any society, tolerance has to exist within the framework of certain rules and limits.”

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

“I don’t think this case is about a ‘religious principle.’ It appears to me to be about parents, and their child, who were not adequately informed about the side effects of chemotherapy. The judge in the case took the side of the parents over the hospital. The parents were not willing to allow their child to suffer the side-effects of the chemotherapy intended to save her life. They wanted to take a break from the medical treatments in favor of ‘natural’ faith-based methods. The parents are quoted as saying they were open to trying chemotherapy again if the ‘natural’ methods did not work. 

“I believe any religious principle that leads to the suffering and death of a child, or any human being, ought to be overridden by a court. Any religious principle that causes the death of a child is more than likely a misunderstood, misapplication of Scripture and tradition. An individual’s misguided interpretation of a religious principle ought not be allowed to cause suffering and death to a child.”

My response:

When an adult makes a choice stemming from 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 is making choices for another person, those choices should reflect that third person’s values. The problem in this case is that the third person is a minor child and the religious faith is more than likely going to harm the child. I am reluctant to affirm the morality of a religious choice that denies science and modern medicine and causes harm to 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 submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved 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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