Medical Care or Prayer?

Question from a Site Viewer
Should people be allowed to practice their religious beliefs instead of seeking medical care, even when their children die? Can this be compared to human sacrifice in devil worship? This question comes from the Worthington case currently before a court in Oregon.

Tim’s Answer
You ask whether people should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs when it leads to the death of their children. This is a difficult question. I think that the answer must be “it depends,” as unsatisfying as that answer may be.

First, children are precious to God, more precious to Him than they are to us. Jesus said that to offend one of these little ones was worse than death (Luke 17:1-2).

Second, I see parents in a sort of trust responsibility before God for their children. Job demonstrated this well, when he would offer sacrifices to God in case his children had sinned. Job also said after his children had died that the Lord had given and the Lord had taken away. Parents have a responsibility to care for and nourish their children.

Third, I think most would agree that there is a difference between actively killing someone and passively letting someone die, although we may disagree on the the degree of difference. Most, for example, would agree that for someone to kill a child is morally wrong and would be murder (I say most because some today argue not only for death in the womb, but death for some outside of the womb). However, the culpability one has for another is more nuanced when one passively lets one die. For instance, if you see a child standing behind a car and you see a driver begin to back towards that child, and you stand there and do nothing, it would seem at least to some of us that you have some culpability for that death, even if in the eyes of the government you have no legal responsibility to intervene. On the other hand, if you see your aged mother stopped breathing and you did not make an effort to start her breathing again, most of us would not see you as having any culpability for her death. The morality of intervention to save life therefore can be seen to depend on one’s ability to intervene, the probability of success from the intervention, the relationship between the people, one’s place in life, the desire of others, and other attendant circumstances. I want to add that in the above example, from a Christian perspective, we cannot argue that the life of one’s mom is less valuable than the life of the child. The feeling that one should intervene in one situation and not in the other is not based on the value of life. There are, instead, other factors. For instance, if I knew that your mom had pleaded with you to start her breathing again, or that she had experienced lapses in breathing in the past and been revived then my view of your standing and letting your mom pass away may change. The attendant circumstances make a big difference in these moral judgments.

Fourth, death and life cannot be easily predicted. Most of the time a child becomes ill, they recover. Sometimes, a child may become ill and die suddenly. Sometimes, they become ill and slowly waste away. Each of these are agonizing situations for parents.

In considering these factors, one factor that is strongly in play is the knowledge and ability of the parent or caregiver. For instance, a mother who is mentally challenged who has a child who is choking and the mother panics leading to the death of the child, we would probably not find the mother morally culpable. If, in the same situation, a mother or father knows how to dislodge food from a windpipe and is capable of doing so and they do nothing, we would probably find them morally culpable.

Likewise, if a parent has a child in a remote village in some jungle and the child suddenly becomes very sick, we probably would not hold the parent morally culpable for the death of the child even though the parent theoretically could have left when the child first became sick and traveled for days to a city where there were medical facilities.

Not only is the ability to obtain medical help important in our discussion, but also the efficacy of such help is important. For instance, if a person has a sick child and the only doctor around is a witchdoctor, we generally would not hold the parents responsible for the death of the child based on failing to seek out the witchdoctor, even if the witchdoctor provided the only hope for the child. This is because the probability of actual help from the witchdoctor is low.

Likewise, in the realm of modern medicine, there are situations when the probability of actual help may inform the question of moral culpability. A real situation might be that of a child with bone cancer. To deal with the cancer, the doctors have amputated the foot and told the parents that there is a 80% chance that the cancer will not reappear. The cancer returns on the stump and this time the doctors amputate at the knee, again giving the parents a 80% chance that the cancer will be gone. The cancer returns. The doctors say that they think their is a 20% chance that they can yet beat the cancer by amputating at the hip. Do we hold the parents responsible if they give in to their child’s cries not to go through another surgery, knowing that there is a 80% chance the surgery would only increase suffering? What if it is not surgery but intense chemotherapy? These are difficult situations. When a positive medical outcome is far from certain, there are differences of opinion as to what the moral imperative is in the situation. Some would say that parents should exhaust every possible medical avenue for their child. Others would say that parents should only be responsible for exploring reasonable avenues. And, of course, then there is a dispute between what is reasonable.

Given these factors, I return to your question. I think most of us would find it incomprehensible for a parent in this country to have a child who is dying of an easily treatable disease to stand by and do nothing efficacious for that disease. To us, not providing medical care is equivalent to not feeding one’s child. Such is morally unjustifiable.

This position exists in spite of the arguments of some that not even doctors can guarantee that the child will live. Our response is that no one can guarantee that a child will live if you feed them, but we do not on that basis justify withholding food. I do not believe that withholding medical care that has a high probability of being efficacious can be morally justified.

On the other hand, I do not equate those who endure the tragedy of watching their child die from a disease that most likely could be treated with those who actively kill their children for whatever reason. The desire and intent of the individual is totally different in these situations. The desire and intent of the individual who works actively to kill the child is the death of the child. The desire and intent of the individual who watches their child die and prays earnestly for the life of the child may be as strongly geared towards the life of the child as you or I would be. They, I believe, are mistaken but they do not have ill intent.

Ultimately, God will be the judge of such matters. I encourage everyone to seek sound medical care for their children, their loved ones, and friends. I believe that medicine is a gift from God and even Jesus said that those who are sick need a physician. The idea that we should not look to medicine but only to prayer is bad theology. It is as if we were saying that God does not use things in this world to accomplish His purposes. If we took the same position with respect to eating, we would soon starve. God uses food to sustain us, and He uses medicine to heal us. Can God sustain us without food? Since He is God, the answer must be “yes.” But I can almost guarantee that if we tried to live solely on the Word of God without eating food, we would quickly die. The issue is not whether God can, but whether such is God’s will. And God’s will often requires that we sow and reap, gather, and eat. His will often is that we allow the gift of doctors to enrich and heal our lives.

I find it ironic that part and parcel of the great missionary movement of the 19th and 20th century was the sending of Christian doctors, the setting up of Christian hospitals and clinics, and the training of Christian health care providers in the far corners of the earth. In the name of Christ, we ministered to the sick and those who were in affliction. And yet, here in our country, there are those who in the name of Christ believe that healing ministries are anathema to God. They are wrong. Such ministries are part and parcel of the work of Christ.

Nevertheless, I do not wish ill upon those who have lost children when they failed to seek readily available medical care. I pray that God will comfort them over the loss of their children, that He will be merciful to them and prevent further deaths, and that He will help them to gain wisdom and a good understanding in this area of medical care.

I hope this helps.

a fellow pilgrim,


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