Probation violation

Babylon 5 Believers

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.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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11 Responses to Probation violation

  1. Jackie says:

    Amazing what you can get away with if you invoke ‘religion’ as a defence as we see all around the world. I hope they don’t have any more children.

  2. xenatuba says:

    Ah, you touch a nerve…

    I am a staunch believer in religious freedom, especially in my freedom to not participate in the Christian religion. When there is a belief that the power of prayer will heal all, and if there is no healing then their time on earth is through (a very brief paraphrase), I am behind that 100%…but not for the children. Children cannot be held accountable for their own decisions (under Oregon law) until age 16, or thereabouts.

    I was given the opportunity to investigate a death a year and a half ago of a 16 year old boy who died from a ruptured appendix. His family (and we’re talking a blended family, because his mother and his step father each lost a spouse due to preventable causes) prayed over him, and he was “given the choice to seek outside medical attention, and chose prayer instead.” It was very clear in our investigation that his parents knew he was dying. This is a young man who cannot consent to have sex, legally. He cannot vote. He can drive, but under a provisional driver’s license with numerous restrictions. He cannot join the military. How can he make that sort of life or death decision? This was doubly hard for me because his grandfather is a good friend of mine.

    If you’re curious, I am sure you could google “Creswell/ Church of the First Born” for details. The parents pled to Criminally Negligent Homicide and are on probation; one of the conditions is that the children under 18 must be provided with “acceptable medical care”. (Oregon law defines one of the elements of Manslaughter II as fail to provide medical care for a child under the age of 14; they were charged with Manslaughter I (one step worse than Man II) and plead to Neg Hom (one step less than Man II).

    I still wrestle with my fundamental belief that we (society) have an interest in not letting kids die, regardless of the religious beliefs of the parents. And we do have an interest, nay a responsibility to prevent it from happening.

  3. Inge says:

    I’m sorry, but this (quote from Einstein, i think) says it best:

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  4. Marta says:

    As you probably know, Jeovah Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions. However I know that in Portugal, doctors can ask the court for a temporary withdrawal of custody of JW’s children, in case they need a blood transfusion. I have been told this by a doctor who has done that herself. As for this story, it is remarkably sad 😦

    • oregon expat says:

      I did not know that about Jehovah’s Witnesses; interesting. Portugal’s legal solution makes a lot of sense — intervene, but only as long as necessary.

    • xenatuba says:

      I have investigated several deaths involving Jehovah’s Witnesses as well, and they’ve all been natural causes deaths. The most recent one was of an 80+ woman who died at a meeting with 100 other people in attendance. (I have a spot on my report that asks, “was the death witnessed”. It was all I could do not to reply with “by 100 Witnesses”. But I digress…) This particular event also had a local paramedic in attendance, who called the hospital, spoke to a Doc, was able to pronounce death, and save a lot of conflict. I went, with enough knowledge to know that there were some religious implications to death/resuscitation to be able to ask the right questions. I got some tremendous positive feedback from how I “handled” the investigation from both the congregation and the Medical Examiner. I am glad I never ran into a situation as Marta mentioned…

  5. HCarvalho says:

    Still remember seeing that episode for the first time in 1995 on TVI, my favourite sci fi series ever.

    • oregon expat says:

      Confession: Mine too. Not for the cheesy special effects or the sometimes third-rate acting of guest stars, but for the incredible (and at that time, very daring) 4-year story arc.

      Whenever I watch that show (’cause I have the full DVD set), I think, “Imagine what this could have been with a Star Trek budget…”

      • HCarvalho says:

        Deep Space 9 came very close to match it. Despite B5’s age, those organic ships still look awesome.

        • oregon expat says:

          True fact! And of course the writing is ageless. My favorite quote: “The avalanche has begun. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.”

          Sucks to be a pebble.

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