It's the middle of the night. Your baby suddenly spikes a high fever. For a while, he cries hysterically, and then suddenly he's eerily calm, whimpering every once in a while. His temperature is still climbing. What do you do?
For most parents, the only response would be to call the pediatrician and rush the baby to a hospital. But for parents whose religious beliefs eschew medical care in favor of prayer, there is another, equally indubitable choice: Do nothing but pray. It's a practice that ignites fierce controversy every time another child dies from a lack of medical care. And in Colorado, three deaths in the past 24 months have propelled the issue back into the spotlight.
At the center of controversy are Congregants of Church of Christ, Scientist, along with members of other, smaller sects, including the Followers of Christ Church and the General Assembly and Church of the First Born. All are staunchly opposed to medical intervention in the case of illness, preferring instead to depend upon prayer to do the healing. Their devotion to what they call "God's will" has, according to their critics, led to the deaths of more than 172 children between 1975 and 1995 - all because their parents refused to seek medical treatment for their children's illnesses.
According to autopsy reports, many if not most of the children could have been saved easily with simple antibiotics. In 1998, then-Texas based critical-care pediatrician Seth Asser told TIME's David Van Biema, "Kids die from accidental deployment of air bags, and you get hearings in Congress. But this goes on, and dozens die and people think there's no problem because the deaths happen one at a time. But the kids who die suffer horribly. This is Jonestown in slow motion," Asser said.
The American Medical Association, the National District Attorneys Association, the Academy of American Pediatrics and a growing number of local and state legislators agree with him. For its part, the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in twice on the topic; first in 1944, when it ruled that while parents "may be free to become martyrs themselves, it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children." The Court ruled similarly in a 1990 case.
And while the SCOTUS opinion did little to clarify the various rights and responsibilities of parents and prosecutors, it did identify one crux of the argument: Actively refusing available medical treatment for yourself is one thing, but presuming to impose your beliefs on another person - especially if that person is a child who may not have formed any religious beliefs at all - is something altogether different.
So why does the legal protection derived from so-called individual "freedom of religion" cover these injuries the devout inflict on others - including family members incapable of making informed consent? In all but four states (Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina) parents can use their religious ideology as a shield against prosecution for withholding medical treatment from their children.
Part of the answer lies in the ambiguity of the SCOTUS ruling: The Justices do not provide a compelling ruling for law enforcement agents looking for a prosecutorial green light. And for the rest of the answer we turn to the wonderful world of political action committees. The Church of Christ, Scientist, whose members are fiercely opposed to medical intervention, is a powerful voice on Capitol Hill as well as in local town halls; the church's lobbying efforts have kept reforms at bay in most states for years. And even for the reform-minded, there are public relations hurdles to overcome; secular challenges to the autonomy of Chuch teachings are often successfully depicted as a threat to freedom of religion.
That approach may, however, be losing steam, especially in states like Oregon and Colorado, where juvenile death rates have risen along with membership in anti-medical sects. State legislators are energetically sponsoring bills that would end the ban on prosecuting parents whose religion compels them to withhold medical treatment.