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Response or Comment

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In June 1997 a sixteen-year-old girl named Shannon Nixon began to feel ill. Her parents belonged to the Faith Tabernacle Church, one of a number of American sects which believe that illness should be treated spiritually rather than medically. Accordingly, the Nixons prayed for Shannon and took her to be anointed at their church. Shannon reported that she felt better and that the spiritual treatment had gained her her victory-her recovery. Before long, however, Shannon again felt ill. She became weaker and weaker and then fell into a coma. A few hours later she died. An autopsy revealed that she had succumbed to diabetic acidosis. Shannon's parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child. A jury found them guilty, and the judge sentenced them to prison for two and half to five years and fined them $1,000. The Nixons' case merits attention not because it sets an astonishing new precedent, but because in its ordinariness it represents several continuing developments in a problem with which the law has had a prolonged and perturbed history. It is standard doctrine that parents have a duty to provide their children the medical care they need. Parents who breach this duty may ordinarily be judged to have "abused or neglected" their child, they may be subject to criminal penalties, and the state may step in to protect the child, even to the extent of terminating the parents' legal relationship with the child. States have long intervened to secure medical care for children who are seriously ill but whose parents refuse to provide them medical care, even if the parents are motivated by their religious beliefs.


Reprinted with the permission of the Hastings Center Report and Wiley-Blackwell.