In 1986, my mother, Joanne Ewing, died of colon cancer. She was fifty years old.
She spent nearly seven months at Tenacre Foundation, a Christian Science care facility in Princeton, New Jersey, before being rushed to a hospital. She was admitted, according to the examining doctor, in a pre-morbid state. Her hemoglobin count hovered around 3; a normal count is around 12. She was severely malnourished. In addition to a massive tumor in her abdomen and a fistula—a hole where the tumor eroded the wall between her bowel and vagina—her entire body was scourged by infection. She had open and infected bedsores.
My parents were strict Christian Scientists. My father was a “Journal-listed” Christian Science practitioner and teacher; my mother had studied to be a Christian Science nurse; and my siblings and I spent several years in Christian Science boarding schools before disavowing the faith. Christian Scientists believe that sickness is an illusion. Prayer treatments involve mentally denying the reality of physical symptoms, so that the patient’s real condition—God-given perfection—can be actualized. Christian Scientists also believe in “mental malpractice”: the idea that one person’s negative thoughts can adversely affect another’s health and well-being. When a Christian Scientist becomes sick, one of the first priorities is to establish an environment conducive to the spiritual healing process; anyone not supportive of Christian Science is a threat. The patient is advised by his/her practitioner, and by the church’s textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to keep non-Scientists away.
When my mother became ill, we—my older sister, younger brother, and I—were viewed with suspicion by her practitioner, and even by our parents. While my mother languished at Tenacre, our attempts to get her to accept medical care failed, and our contact with her was severely curtailed. Worst of all, because my parents had converted to Christian Science, my mother’s family—including a surgeon (her brother) and a retired registered nurse (her mother)—was kept in the dark not only by my parents, but also by my siblings and me, who reluctantly carried on a charade of normalcy out of respect for our parents’ choice of faith. (By the way, Medicare reimburses for treatment at “accredited” Christian Science care facilities.)
I began writing about my family’s experience in Christian Science in1987. With the publication of my memoir, fathermothergod, I am hearing testimonies of other harrowing Christian Science tragedies: a couple in Minnesota who lost a child to appendicitis, a woman in Nebraska whose sister died in circumstances similar to my mother’s, a twelve-year-old boy in California who died of untreated diabetes. One former Christian Science nurse told me of witnessing cases of untreated tumors that grew so large they literally “ripped the skin.”
The Christian Science church has historically been the staunchest supporter not only of its own members facing criminal charges in the preventable deaths of children who are denied medical care for religious reasons, but also members of other churches with similar beliefs, citing the First Amendment right to freely practice one’s religion. Last spring, the Oregon legislature repealed the state’s religious exemption laws—which had been sponsored by the Christian Science church—clearing the way for charges to be brought against the parents of three children who died of curable illnesses: a kidney blockage, pneumonia, and a blood infection. The parents belonged to the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing group. This time, however, the Christian Science church backed away from its support of the Followers of Christ when public opinion overwhelmingly turned against them.
Just recently in Washington State, a husband and wife were charged with second-degree murder in the death of their seventeen-year-old son from a burst appendix. Critically ill, according to media reports, the young man was asked by his parents if he would like to seek medical care; he refused, and the parents acquiesced. The boy and his parents were members of a faith-healing sect called Church of the First Born. The Christian Science church has once again kept silent, instead of offering support.
The church’s new stance on child protection is a step in the right direction, and it will probably save some lives. But it should raise important questions for those members who do not blindly follow church dogma. In illnesses like appendicitis, a quick response is critical; for many cancers, early screening can lead to successful treatment. If the church has now deemed it okay to “resort to medicine”—a term I heard frequently and disparagingly in my youth—when worse comes to worst, is that a reasonable standard? Should Christian Scientists be allowed to place their children at risk for undue suffering while they wait and see?
When Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science toward the end of the nineteenth century, X-rays and antibiotics had not yet been discovered. The practice of hand sanitizing had only recently been introduced as a medical protocol. At the time, Mrs. Eddy’s distrust of doctors was reasonable, and sometimes reliance solely on prayer was the only prudent choice. In 2011, reliance on prayer without medicine can be a death sentence.