At some Orthodox Jewish circumcisions, the blood from the cut is sucked away, a practice that, in some cases, has been linked to infection. Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Parents’ Beliefs vs. Their Children’s Health
The spread of measles has called attention to parents who don’t vaccinate children because of religious beliefs. New York City is accommodating an Orthodox Jewish circumcision practice that can infect babies with herpes. Some states even let believers in faith healing deny life-saving medical care to their children.
Should parents’ religious beliefs allow them to refuse medical care for their children or avoid standard medical practices?
Religious Freedom Balanced With Responsibility
Kristen A. Feemster is a pediatric infectious diseases physician and health services researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
As a nation, we value freedom of speech and religion, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that decisions based upon this freedom do not bring harm to others, especially those who are not able to make decisions themselves.
Parental autonomy gives parents the primary responsibility for deciding how to raise their children and keep them from harm’s way. Parents decide what their children eat, where they go to school, whether and when they watch television. Most important, parents impart values. But this private realm lies within a public sphere that also has a responsibility to ensure that children are safe and healthy.
The private realm lies within a public sphere that also has a responsibility to ensure that children are safe and healthy.
As a pediatric health care provider, I am often confronted with the difficult question of whether the religious beliefs of parents should guide the treatment of their children, even if it means harm to the child. I know that our courts have found that the Constitution leaves room for society to protect children. “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves, but it does not follow they are free … to make martyrs of their children,” the Supreme Courtruled in 1944, finding that religious freedom did not justify letting parents violate child labor laws. That decision was cited in 1990 by a Philadelphia court that permitted the imposition of compulsory vaccination during a measles outbreak in which five children associated with a faith healing religious group died. The same rationale applied in the 2013 prosecution of a Philadelphia couple practicing faith healing after two of their children died from untreated pneumonia.
These deaths were all preventable.
I see continued examples of preventable harm to children associated with the practice of religious beliefs. Since 2000, there have been 17 cases of herpes simplex virus infection in baby boys who had undergone a circumcision practice observed in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. In these instances, parents may be aware of the risk associated with their decisions, but when it is a matter of life or death or there is potential for severe illness, society has an obligation to stand up on behalf of children who do not yet have their own informed voice.
This does not mean that it is impossible to respect the practice of religious beliefs while preventing harm. While religious belief systems may vary significantly, most share the general principles of respect for life and caring for others, especially for those who are most vulnerable. Our Constitution protects these practices. But that same Constitution has recognized that we are all responsible for ensuring that children have an opportunity for a safe and healthy life.