Faith, medicine and tragedy
The conviction of Jan and Debra Moorhead for the death of
their six-month-old Caleb has thrown into the spotlight the relationship between
state-responsibility, religion and medical treatment. Caleb's parents had
erroneously believed that their sons weakening health could be remedied through
herbal extracts and prayer, they had no faith in conventional medical treatment.
All that was required to save Caleb was the simple injection of a B12 vitamin.
The reaction of mainstream New Zealand to the Moorhead's
has been extreme and vitriolic. The trial judge, Mr. Justice Harrison, sentenced
the parent's to the maximum 5 years imprisonment sought by the crown
prosecutor. Justice Harrison was ungracious stating that the couples inaction,
"defies rational belief". Reports of his judgment described a
controlled but clearly furious summing up of the evidence. He quoted from
Deborah Moorhead's own notes on her baby's condition in the ironically titled
Well Baby book: "No one home"; "Not so smiley"; "No
smiles"; "Not wanting to be held even". The picture painted was
heartbreaking, the judge condemned the Moorhead's for putting
"uncompromising, dogmatic self-belief" before their baby, and it was
he said, quoting a witness for the prosecution, "so stupid".
The views expressed by Justice Harrison were indicative of
the mood of the majority of New Zealanders. There is a great risk of public
overreaction against all those who hold religious beliefs, claiming that all
such beliefs, whatever the persuasion, somehow endanger the healthcare of
infants. What many have failed to realise that the Moorhead case is not typical
and by demonizing our faith in the healing spirit of God underestimates the
power of prayer fuelled healing.
In the USA the medical profession has started to shift its
position on the importance of prayer. The change is a direct consequence of the
belief of the US public in the healing power of prayer. A 1996 Time/CNN poll
found that eighty-two percent of the people surveyed "believed in the
healing power of prayer"; and in a February 1996 poll in USA Weekend seventy-nine
percent of those surveyed believed that "spiritual faith can help people
recover from illness, injury, or disease." That same survey showed that
fifty-six percent of the respondents reported that they had been healed due to
Obviously the majority of Americans do believe in prayer's
power to heal.
More interesting is the large number of Americans who would
also like their doctors to pray with them. The Time/CNN poll reported that
sixty-four percent of the public thought that doctors should pray with a patient
if they are asked. The majority of doctors who were surveyed in a separate study
were not supportive of the practice.
The failure of mainstream medicine to care for a patient's
spiritual health is one of the factors that drive people away from conventional
treatment. Spiritual healing plays an important role in many people's lives
and is an aspect that doctors must address in order to provide complete
treatment for their patients. Physicians must be able to admit that they may not
be able to cure all bodily ailments by themselves.
In order for doctors to meet the needs of their patients,
they must be understanding and tolerant of different views. They need to be open
to discussing matters of religion and faith with their patients, it is possible
that such a discussion could have persuaded the Moorhead's to place their son
into the care of the hospital doctors rather than avoiding the health
For the doctor-patient relationship to succeed, both parties
must be aware of each other's roles. This understanding can play a major part
in keeping the lines of communication open.
Neither medicine nor prayer has absolute dominance over the
other. There are times when prayer is the best route, and there are times when
medicine must be prescribed. However, a combination of the two should always
deliver the best outcome. Patients need both spiritual healing and medical
treatment during times of illness and injury. When dealing with infants doctors
must be able to engender the faith of the parents. Treating people as inert
receptacles of synthesized science will mean that Mr. Justice Harrison's
discourse will not be the last word on the consequences of "uncompromising,
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