I just ran across an article in my news feeds that caught my attention, and not in a good way.
A Philadelphia couple – serving 10 years’ probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor – has violated their probation now that another of their children has died.
Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith-healing.
They were convicted of involuntary manslaughter after their 2-year-old son died of pneumonia, and four years later their 8-month-old son has died after suffering “diarrhea and breathing problems for days.”
I was immediately reminded of the Babylon 5 episode “Believers,” in which an alien couple consult the space station’s doctor with their desperately sick child. The doctor delivers the good news: Congratulations, your child has a respiratory issue that can be completely cured with a minor surgery! But the parents refuse, because in their religion, cutting into a person releases that person’s spirit, leaving only a soulless shell behind. Only food animals are operated on.
The doctor tells them that he respects their beliefs, and then tries every angle he can think of to convince them to allow the surgery. They refuse. The child, however, is afraid of dying and willing to go against his religion in order to live. But he is a minor and cannot consent to the surgery. He needs his parents’ permission.
Eventually the doctor goes to the station commander to ask for official dispensation to perform the surgery against the parents’ wishes. This request is also refused, because the station is neutral ground and that would be a violation of neutrality between the alien races.
Facing a violation of his Hippocratic oath and his sense of ethics, the doctor risks his career, goes against orders and performs the surgery anyway. It is a complete success, and the child is rejuvenated. “Mom, Dad!” he cries when his parents come into the room, but they recoil in horror. They believe his spirit has escaped and their son’s body now houses a soulless demon. The child is crushed by their rejection and sobs as they run from the room, while the doctor consoles him.
Eventually the parents return, telling the doctor they have prayed for guidance, and they have decided to accept their son. Thus, they have brought him a traveling robe and are taking him back to their quarters so he can rest. Relieved by their change of heart, the doctor releases the child into their care and retires to his office, happy at the way it has all worked out.
Of course, we viewers know it can’t be this easy. In the quiet office, the doctor looks at a report on their species and sees an image of the “traveling robe,” which is actually a death shroud. Desperately he runs through the corridors to their quarters, bursting through the door to save the child, but it’s too late. His parents have killed him and are now praying over his body. They had to, they explain to the distraught doctor. Their son was already gone; what they killed was a demon. But they are kind people; they forgive the doctor for what he tried to do. The doctor backs away, his expression making clear that their forgiveness feels more like poison.
As a plot, it was fairly predictable. As an examination of the issues of religious belief versus medical science, it was an interesting and barely-disguised metaphor for the very real conflict our modern society faces. At what point does the state have the right to step in and strip parents of their authority? Especially if the parents have never abused their children, but love them and are clearly doing what they believe is best for them? The claim that their god’s law supersedes the law of human society would hold no weight if their god compelled them to beat the child — in that case, the state would step in immediately. But withholding medical care somehow falls into a different category.
At any rate, that episode of Babylon 5 is still perfectly relevant 19 years after it aired. And a second dead child is a hell of a probation violation.