DYING FOR THEIR BELIEFS:CHRISTIAN SCIENTIST PARENTS ON TRIAL IN GIRL’S DEATH
by Jeffrey Good
Have you heard anything about Christian Science? If you haven’t,read now the article from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs& Religions given below this text.
Amy Hermanson was a sunny seven-year-old with blond hair and bubbly ways. She liked to serenade adults with her favorite song: Disney’s
"It’s a Small World After All."
But Amy’s world went awry one Sunday in 1986. An adult friend of her family noticed the child’s sunken eyes, her listless manner, the way her clothes hung from her tiny bones. She tried to get the child to sing her favorite song.
"She used to come over and sing every verse to me. I couldn’t even get her to make a comment on the song, let alone sing it," the friend, Mary Christman, would later tell investigators. She recalled her husband saying, "If the child does not receive medical attention, she will be dead within a week."
But Amy’s parents are Christian Scientists. They decided to try to heal the child with prayer rather than seek a doctor’s aid. Two days after the Christmans saw her, Amy died of diabetes.
On Monday, Amy’s parents are scheduled to go on trial in the Sarasota County Courthouse on charges of third-degree murder* and felony child abuse**. Prosecutors say William and Christine Hermanson committed a crime by putting religious principles ahead of protecting their daughter. The Hermansons say their accusers are wrong. If convicted, the couple could face three to seven years in jail.
At issue is a legal principle with national ramifications. Since 1967, no Christian Scientist in the United States has stood trial for denying children medical care for religious reasons. Six similar cases are pending, but the Hermansons are the first to go to court.
"The children are entitled to protection, and if the parents won’t give it to them, they (the parents) will suffer the legal consequences," says Mack Futch, an assistant state attorney in Sarasota County.
The Hermansons, however, have maintained that prosecutors want to violate their constitutional right of religious freedom. And in interviews last week, their supporters maintained that the couple treated their daughter with a proven – if unconventional – method of healing.
Frederick Hillier, a Christian Science «practitioner» who was ministering to the child when she died, said that Christian Scientists regard prayer as a better treatment than conventional medicine. "A Christian Scientist is doing nothing any different than anyone who has found medical treatment to be effective," said Hillier, who also acts as the spokesman for Florida Christian Science churches. "Why do Christian Scientists rely on spiritual healing when they could go to a physician if they wanted to? In their experience, they found it to be effective."
Church members acknowledge that their methods sometimes fail, just as doctors sometimes fail, he said. But that doesn’t mean the Christian Scientists deserve criminal charges any more than the doctors do, he said. "We don’t claim any more than anyone else claims to be 100 percent effective," Hillier said. "Even Jesus didn’t."
Amy’s third grade report card was her last. It showed A’s in reading, English, spelling, mathematics, science, and social studies. "Amy takes a keen interest in all her work,"a teacher wrote.
But in September 1986, Amy began fourth grade as a different child. Teachers noticed her dozing off in class, shedding weight at an alarming rate, and complaining of stomachaches. At one point, she held her hands over her ears and pleaded, «Stop the noise. Stop the noise,» at the sound of a pencil scratching paper.
"After the school year began, Amy was often upset. She would cry and say that she did not feel well,» said June R. McHugh, director of the private Julie Rohr Academy attended by Amy and her older brother, Eric. McHugh told inverstigators that about a week before Amy’s death, she told Mrs. Hermanson her daughter might be suffering from a physical ailment. McHugh recalled that Mrs. Hermanson said «The situation was being handled."
On September 22, one of the practitioners began praying for the child.
On September 25, the Hermansons left Amy in a baby-sitter’s care and went to Indiana for a Christian Science conference on spiritual healing. They returned on September 29.
But at 8:30 A.M.on September 30, 1986, a state social worker in Sarasota took a call from Amy’s aunt. The worker’s notes sketched a chilling picture: "Over the last two weeks Amy has lost 10 pounds, drinks constantly, eats large amounts of food, muscle tone is virtually gone, eyes are sunken and functioning separately. Child can barely walk and has to be carried – all indications point to diabetes but parents refuse to take child to the doctor as they are Christian Scientists."
A court hearing was scheduled for 1:30 P.M. and Amy’s father arrived early. At 1:27 P.M., Hermanson took a phone call from home reporting that Amy had taken a turn for the worse and an ambulance was en route. Learning this, the judge ordered that a medical doctor examine Amy.
But it was too late. With Christian Science practitioner nearby, Amy had died in her parents’ bed.
Most Important Right
After performing an autopsy on the child, Associate Medical Examiner James C. Wilson concluded that medical treatment up to just hours before her death probably could have saved Amy. The Hermansons have acknowledged they never sought such treatment. That does not make them criminals, say their lawyers and supporters.
"There isn’t anyone who is more loving to their children than Christian Scientists," said Bob Drabik, chairman of the board of directors at Sarasota’s First church, Christian Science, where the Hermansons are members.
Florida law says parents can’t be judged «abusive or neglectful» because they withhold conventional medical treatment for religious reasons. Similar laws exist in most states. They were enacted under heavy lobbying from the Boston-based church after one of its members, Dorothy Sheridan of Harwich, Massachusetts, was convicted in 1967 of manslaughter in the death of her child. "William and Christine Hermanson, at all times material*** to the facts in this case, followed the religious teaching of their church and relied upon Christian Science healing in the care treatment of Amy Hermanson," the court record states.
Within the legal community, there is considerable debate over whether that is an adequate defense when a child dies. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz says that such trials revolve around two important constitutional rights: parents’ freedom of religion, and children’s right to grow up healthy.
In cases where one right must take priority, Dershowitz says, the choice is clear: "It’s not a difficult question. Children have a right to live and be brought up to make their own religious decision."
Hillier, the Christian Science spokesman, said that church members view prayer as the best way to make sick children well. "We don’t want the right to do harm to children," he said, "we only want the right to do what is good for children."
*third-degree murder : murder without intention
**felony child abuse : a serious crime involving hurting a child physically or psychologically
***material : related