An Oregon lawmaker introduced a bill Monday to end legal protections for parents who use only faith to heal their sick or dying children.
State Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie) introduced House Bill 2721 to remove spiritual treatment as a defense for all homicide charges. The bill also ensures that parents convicted of homicide for faith healing may receive longer sentences through the state's Measure 11 mandatory sentencing guide.
"It's going to make it easier to hold parents accountable who don't protect their children," John Foote, the Clackamas County district attorney, told The Oregonian.
This is not the first time that the state has tried to take action against parents whose children die because they refuse to seek basic medical help.
In 1999, former Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law a bill that eliminated the Oregon spiritual healing exemption in some manslaughter and criminal mistreatment cases. The bill was passed after a 1998 report evaluating the deaths of children whose families practiced faith healing in lieu of medical care revealed that the deaths were preventable.
That bill eliminates the faith healing defense in cases of second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment, and nonpayment of child support.
The bill also gives the presiding judge discretion in issuing prison sentences, rather than giving offenders a 75-month minimum.
The law was tested in 2008 when two couples – Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Worthington, and Jeffrey Dean Beagley and wife, Marci Rae Beagley – were charged in the deaths of their children.
Infant Ava Worthington died March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection that could have been treated with antibiotics, according to the state medical examiner's office.
Neil Beagley, 16, died from kidney and heart failure resulting from a urinary tract blockage. Medical examiners concluded that his blockage could have been treated with the insertion of a catheter.
Both couples were members of Followers of Christ Church and testified that their faith influenced their decision not to consult doctors.
Members of Oregon City's Followers of Christ Church believe in faith healing, a practice that demands prayer be the only method for healing. The church has a policy forbidding its members from using traditional medicine or seeking professional medical care to treat illnesses.
Faith healing has deep roots in American history. A form of faith healing is embraced within the Christian Science Church, a religion founded by Mary Baker Eddy just after the Civil War.
According to the Christian Science website, "A Christian Scientist's first choice is to rely on prayer for healing, and in most cases, this means that a medical remedy is unnecessary." However, it does not mandate its followers forgo medical intervention.
The Beagleys were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide, thanks to the bill. Carl Worthington was convicted of criminal mistreatment. His wife was acquitted of all charges.
Under the newly proposed law, the religious defense would not be permissible in a broad number of murder charges for a minor under the age of 18. Also defendants found guilty of criminally negligent homicide under the new law would be subjected to a minimum sentence of 25 years without the possibility of parole.
Under the old law, the Beagleys would be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"Such gross and unnecessary neglect cannot be allowed, even if the parents are well-meaning," Tomei told The Oregonian.
She thinks the bill has a good chance of passing because she believes legislators will not testify against the bill.
The bill also has wide support among prosecutors, medical providers and anti-crime groups such as the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance. The group's president Kevin Mannix chaired the House Judiciary subcommittee on the 1999 bill.