Extended Guilt

Every time I read a story like this one, I get a little twinge of guilt. It's a horrible story--a teenager died because he didn't seek medical attention for a urinary tract blockage. A catheter would have cured him, and he's dead, because he followed a religion that teaches that the only allowable medical treatment is prayer. He was 16, and that's why I feel a little guilt by association.

Part of the reason that laws like the one that will shield Beagley's parents in this case exist is because of religions like the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Witnesses, at least when I was a member 13 years ago, weren't this extreme--their only medical prohibition was on the use of blood, but that prohibition was absolute, even if it meant that they or their children died as a result. We were taught, from a very early age, that we were supposed to resist if a blood transfusion were forced on us. We were given literature to pass along to doctors which gave some alternative treatments we would find acceptable, and there were long, protracted debates over whether pulling blood out of your own body for storage and use if necessary while having surgery was okay.

But this is why I feel a twinge of guilt. When I was young, I remember the stories, often in the Watchtower or Awake! magazines, about young people, usually between 12 and 18, who would profess their faith to judges who were considering whether to take custody of them and force the blood transfusions on them. I don't have any idea what percentage of kids were successful in convincing the judges to let them risk death in this way--we got a skewed version of these stories, as you might expect--but I can't help but think that some of my (former) fellow Witness kids had something to do with the laws like this one in Oregon that allow teenagers to refuse medical treatment on religious grounds.

I have a problem with that law, but it has nothing to do with religious adults being able to refuse medical treatment if they wish. I have a problem with allowing a teenager to make that kind of call for him or herself. They're not prepared to make that kind of life and death decision, and we as a society shouldn't act as though they are. We have an obligation to protect minors from themselves, just as we have an obligation to remove them from families that endanger their health and well-being. If Neil Beagley had been 18 years old--because that's the bright line we've set for adulthood in this country--and had made this decision, I'd have shaken my head and said "what a waste of a life." But I wouldn't have been angry, and I wouldn't feel complicit, in a very small way, in his death.

But what religions like the Followers of Christ Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses do is convince children and teenagers so completely that they have the one truth, and that to betray that truth is to toss away any possible future, that when they're asked to put their lives on the line, they often do without a second thought. They are impassioned in their pleas to judges. I had a friend who lost his leg trying to jump onto a moving train, and while he was being wheeled into surgery to close up the wound, was kicking at the blood bag trying to knock it loose so he wouldn't sin--and yes, that's how we thought of it. If we didn't do everything we could to stop it, even if it meant our deaths, then we had sinned. (That made for some screwed-up issues involving rape as well, but that's for another time.) That kind of commitment can sway a judge, and in a country with as much respect for religion as this one, can sway legislatures as well.

But it shouldn't. What an adult does with his or her own body is cool with me, as long as it's not impacting the larger society to an unacceptable degree (for example, the debate over what drugs should be legalized deals with this issue--we've decided that alcohol is okay but heroin isn't, and the debate over marijuana still rages). But a teenager's brain isn't fully formed yet, and most teenagers lack the experience to understand exactly what they're putting at risk in these cases. I know, because I was one of them. Had I been faced with that situation, I have little doubt that I'd have told a judge precisely what I'd been trained to say. I'm glad it didn't come to that, but I feel a little responsible for those who do, and for the judges who respect those decisions.

Newer Post Older Post Home