Two members of an Oregon sect that believes in faith healing have been charged with murder in the death of their premature infant daughter. Sarah and Travis Mitchell, 24 and 21, have been under investigation since Sarah gave birth to twin girls at her grandparents’ home in March. The birth was attended by three midwives, church members, and family members. But when one of the twins, Gennifer, struggled to breathe, no one called 911. A church elder contacted the city’s medical examiner only after the baby died.
The Mitchells are members of a Christian sect called the Followers of Christ Church, which has a history of infant deaths. Adherents reject traditional medical care in favor of prayer, and believe that if a person dies, the death was God’s will. An Oregonian investigation in the late 1990s found that 21 of the 78 children in the church’s graveyard could have been saved by medical intervention. Sarah Mitchell’s own sister, Shannon Hickman, and her husband were found guilty of second-degree manslaughter in 2011 for the death of her infant son, who was born two months premature and weighed less than four pounds. The church, which is influenced by Pentecostalism, has about 1,000 members in Oregon and Idaho.
There are larger, better known religious traditions that also reject elements of modern medicine, of course, but in recent years they have made attempts to reconcile their objections with the law, technology, and compassion. Christian Science, which rejects medical science, has made moves to emphasize its approach as supplemental; leaders have said that the church now quietly allows members to seek a doctor’s care if necessary. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who object on religious grounds to blood transfusions, have allowed parents to acquiesce to court orders requiring their children to receive life-saving transfusions, reasoning that in such cases the parents themselves technically avoid making the decision. Meanwhile, that tradition’s objections to blood transfusions have led to significant advances in the area of “bloodless medicine”; the New Yorker reported in 2015 that many doctors have now begun using transfusions more conservatively in response. Both Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have seen dramatic declines in membership in recent years.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of states allow no religious exemptions for parents who decline necessary medical treatments for their children. The Mitchells are being prosecuted in Oregon thanks to a 2011 law that rolled back legal protections for parents who reject life-saving medical care based on their faith. Sixteen states, including Texas, Tennessee, New York, and Massachusetts, now have similar laws on the books, often passed in the wake of appalling preventable deaths. In Idaho, which currently allows religious exemptions but also allows courts to order treatment, one sheriff recently formed a unit to investigate every death of a child associated with the Followers of Christ. A previous task force in Idaho found that the child mortality rate among the group was 31 percent, about 10 times the rate in Idaho children overall.
Federal law on faith-healing parents, meanwhile, is relatively weak. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which Richard Nixon signed in 1974, was designed to help states fund programs to combat child abuse and neglect. But it also required states to include exemptions for parents who reject mainstream medical care for religious reasons. Those provisions were crafted and promoted by Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman—both Christian Scientists.