This is a puzzler. The story begins as follows:
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A couple serving probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor could face new charges now that another son has died.
Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith healing. They lost their 8-month-old son, Brandon, last week after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that a decision on charges will be made after they get the results of an autopsy.
John Locke was the champion of liberal thought who almost single-handedly formed the warp and woof of Madison and Jefferson’s thinking about the place of government in the lives of its citizens. It is generally known that they followed Locke in thinking that that government is best that governs least. I do not follow them in this libertarian thinking, because things have become so complicated these days and we have learned that when government doesn’t step in — as in the case of large corporations that would pollute the air and water — the citizens are the ones who suffer. In fact, citizens have little recourse as individuals in attempting to take on large, wealthy corporations that are impacting their lives in so many ways.
But at the same time, I do agree with Locke who also noted that parents are responsible for their children until they reach “the age of reason,” as Locke put it. That was never defined, but I assume he meant the age when they can take responsibility for their own lives. We have decided it is 18 or 21 — depending on what sort of responsibility we are talking about. But while the age is somewhat arbitrary the principle is clear: parents are responsible for their children until we can presume the children themselves can act responsibly. The parents in this case are devout Christians who distrust medical science and seem convinced that prayer is sufficient to heal their sick children. I don’t happen to agree with them, and there are many arguments against this strict position.
But I must admit I have a problem with officials of the state of Pennsylvania stepping in and telling these people they cannot raise their children as they see fit. This is a classic case of paternalism and the man who argued most persuasively against that position was John Stuart Mill in the late nineteenth century. He was developing ideas he found in Locke, ideas that focus on the unwarranted spread of civil influence into the private lives of individuals who ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes. Mill was convinced that the only time the state had a right to interfere in the lives of the citizens is when they pose a real and present threat to one another: when it steps in to prevent harm to a citizen.
In the case of young children who are the responsibility of their parents, it seems to me that the state has firm grounds for stepping in between parents and children if, and only if, the parents are clearly threatening the lives of the children — when they physically abuse them, for example. The case of parents who refuse medical attention because they believe in the efficacy of prayer assuredly does not come under this rubric. Failure to seek medical attention for their sick children seems to me to be one of the things best left to their judgment, whether or not we agree with that judgment. In this case it is not only paternalistic it is a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees religious freedom. Whether we like it or not (and I confess I do not like it) these parents are guaranteed the right to raise their children in accordance with their deeply held religious convictions. The couple has seven children who are now in foster care and have been described as “distraught” over the death of their child; nonetheless, prosecutors seek to have the couple jailed since they are regarded as a “threat to their children.” What possible grounds could the state of Pennsylvania have for either taking the children from their parents of prosecuting the parents as criminals?