The limits of religious and parental freedom

We tend to think of religious freedoms in the west as absolute, and on the face, we will defend very vigorously our right to believe whatever we want without criticism, without sanction, and the right to act on those beliefs in private reflection of our relationship with the divine. Even atheists claim this right, even if they do it by denying religion all together … without the freedom to believe anything, or nothing, an atheist’s belief’s are just as ridiculous to a religious person as the other way around. To demand the right not to believe in anything, we MUST accept the right to believe in anything.

But we also know there are practical limits in the real world. Turn our heads in another direction, and its easy top think of extreme examples where its clear that the concept of ‘religious freedom’ is exploited for other reasons, or even just that the result of that freedom is so devastating to people. Men like Jim Jones and David Koresh, and their congregations are some real world examples where religious freedoms are taken to extremes far beyond the reasonable, and we can all think of other areas like self-flagellation, asceticism, etc, which would seem questionable if applied forcibly to believers by a central church authority, or even if applied rigorously within a family environment … for example, how do we feel about “religious freedom” if it includes teaching children and teens how to repent for their sins by wearing crowns of thorns, or by appropriately pious self-whipping? Clearly there are places where we back away from the “knee-jerk” support we have for “religious freedom.”

There is a case in British Columbia, Canada that is opening many of these questions. Recently, sextuplets were born to a BC family, and while initial reports seemed to indicate all was “normal,” lately its become clear that there is a struggle for life and death, and soul, going on within this new family and with BC authorities. As is often the case in multiple births, the babies were born early and small, and required medical intervention to survive. In this case however, the family is Jehovah’s Witness, and as such they have a deep revulsion for any sort of medical procedure that involves blood products … in one of those ironies that only the Divine is capable of, these poor young babies require the very blood transfusion their faith forbids to live. So far, at least two of the babies have died, and within the past 24 hours, authorities have seized the remaining babies from the family to ensure that they receive the medical attention they require to survive.

Stories that involve life and death are always hearty wrenching … add to it the fact that its the life of tiny, premature babies, an its hard to have any sort of “objective view” on this. From the perspective of most of us, the idea that you would watch your baby die while there was a medical procedure that might save them available is beyond unthinkable … It’s barbaric and heartless. But can we REALLY put our moral judgements onto these people? Do we really think that they are callously sacrificing the lives of their children for no reason? Does it even matter that the parents of these children have a very specific way of helping their kids? At what point are we allowed to ignore the wishes of parents when dealing with their children? At what point are we allowed to step in and say that our assessment on their safety or life is more important than the parents, and will be enforced above the parents?

I know what most people are thinking … the lives of the babies are #1. There can be no consideration greater than saving the babies, and its hard to mount an argument against that on its face … how can I be against saving the lives of babies? But from the perspective of these parents, there is more than just LIFE at stake … there is eternal soul at stake too. Imagine you are a Catholic, and you are told by authorities that you MUST do something that would condemn your child to hell for eternity, with no means of escape … is that TRULY a reasonable request? When the other result is the death of the child, its very difficult to see past our own emotional attachments to life and death, but I think we can all think of principle for which we would be willing to give up our lives, and even in certain cases the lives of our families.

We all face medical decisions that are difficult, and while the usually come at the end of life, that’s not always the case … sometimes, those hard decisions come at the beginning of life. Extraordinary life saving means are sometimes required (if not for incubators and an ICU, Elron wouldn’t be around to be typing this post, for example) even for babies, but as in the case of ALL medical procedures, it strikes me that it must ALWAYS be a decision weighed and arrived at by the parents. There are no cases, not even the cases of transfusion for these tiny babies in BC, where medicine will give you guarantees about what will happen … just as they can’t say with certainty the babies will die without transfusion, they can’t say they will live with transfusion … doctors may claim that the odds of that are VERY high, but aren’t the parents still allowed to weigh those concerns in their own way, using their own criteria? Isn’t this as much about the right of parent’s to choose what they think is best for a kid, despite the objections on others?

There are tiny lives that hang in the balance over this issue right now, though at present, as I understand it, the remaining children are in the custody of authorities and are going to receive medical treatment against the parents’ wishes. The babies will probably survive, and its hard to argue that’s a bad thing … in fact, I’m not even trying to argue that. But I am asking why we don’t support the right of parents’ to have the final say in matters about their children. People may argue that in matters of life and death like this, where we can save lives, we have an obligation to step in … maybe they are right. But aren’t matters of life and death precisely where the parents’ responsibility for this is the most important? If we think that we should ultimately have the right to make whatever choice WE feel is best for our children, despite pressure from others, I wonder how we can deny that right to these parents, even if the result is death? If we support the government going in and taking kids away in cases like this, at what point would we accept authorities placing controls on our own parental choices over our own children?

There are many issues in all this, and clearly, the best of all worlds is that the babies live with no threat to anything that the parents believe, or with no threat to their authority to raise their children as they wish. That’s not the case here, and very difficult questions need to be answered about how far we are allowed to go, both with belief, and with the idea that we alone are best able to decide what is best for our children. I don’t have those answers, but I’m not at all certain that taking children from their parents, and subjecting them to a procedure which their faith defines as inherently sinful, is a good thing in any circumstances, even ones as extreme as this. I’d love to hear comment on this … if the state can step in and take children from parents for “safety” reasons like this, what is the limit of the extreme? Its pretty easy to argue, for example, that a parent who smokes in a car with a child, for instance, is poisoning that kid, and they don’t even have the excuse of intense religious belief to fall back on … should we be sending in authorities to save the lives of those kids? Car-seats would be another example where there isn’t even a religious case to make, and yet no one suggests we take children away from parents who don’t strap them in. Clearly, these babies are in a great deal of immediate distress, but wouldn’t we ALWAYS reserve the right to make our own judgement about what is the best thing to do for the sake of our children? When would we let the government step into OUR family and say our decisions or our beliefs were wrong? I don’t think we ever should, and I’m not sure we should support it in this case, despite how difficult the consequences of our principle may be.

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