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Death at the Hands of Faith

Opinion | February 26, 2010


The woes Jeff and Marci Beagley have endured are worse than most people will ever experience. Their 16-year-old son Neil died in June 2008 due to a urinary tract blockage, only three months after the death of their 16-month-old granddaughter Ava to pneumonia and a blood infection. Most parents will spend countless months after such a death reliving their child’s last days and slowly going through the five stages of grief. The Beagleys are no different, except in one fundamental way: they are grieving in court. They may sound like an unlucky couple that deserves our condolences, but the last thing these Oregonians ought to have is America’s sympathy; they have been found guilty for the death of their son. As members of the Followers of Christ Church, they are strict believers in faith healing and balk at medical attention. They trust that the strength of their faith will be enough to overpower any disease. So instead of being in a hospital, Ava and Neil were left to wither away in their homes. Instead of taking all sorts of antibiotics, the two were anointed with oil. In short, instead of living, young Ava and Neil died.
This isn’t the first time this situation has occurred either. In fact, Larry Lewman, a former Oregonian medical examiner, claims that 25 children died in a 10-year span from treatable causes due to the church’s negligence and a lack of medical attention. This death rate is an enormous 26 times higher than the national average at that time. These people are letting their children die literally in their arms. The state has been sanctioning this disgusting habit for years. Until 1999, Oregon has had laws protecting parents from manslaughter charges if their children die from faith healing without receiving medical help based on claims of freedom of religion.
Children have parents and guardians for a reason: so that they can be protected and prepared for the world. It is one thing if a fully-grown, mentally mature adult chooses to trust in his religion and forgo necessary medical treatment; that is his decision, and I agree that he should be granted the freedom to choose his own healing method as he finds best. When a child is thrown into the mix, however, the same rules do not apply. In the case of 16-month-old Ava, she was likely not even conscious as to what was happening to her. In Neil’s situation though, there is no doubt that Neil knew both that he was dying and that his family trusted their faith to nurse him back to health and knew he was powerless.
Members of the church who do not follow the doctrine are excommunicated and ostracized, and this is one of the many practices that make some ex-members refer to the church as a cult and not a denomination. How then could a 16-year-old boy deny the church’s rules that he had been taught his whole life in front of his family and community? What would that have meant for him and his loved ones? No, Neil could not stand up to those people and policies he had respected for so long, and it is likely that he did not want to, even as his health went from bad to worse. Neither Neil nor Ava had a chance to survive treatable medical issues because they were born into a community that cares more about the church than the children.
All of this is not to say that the Beagleys did not love their son or granddaughter; I have no doubt that they did only what they thought was best. What I don’t understand, however, is how the couple could allow this to occur twice in their own family and in such a short span of time. After Ava’s death, Jeff and Marci allowed nearly the same situation to occur, proving that they clearly did not learn the lesson they could have from an unfortunate situation. I completely believe in freedom of religion, but this Oregon-based cult is taking improper advantage of that freedom. They could easily promote faith-healing while seeking modern medical treatment or even support faith healing until the situation becomes too serious. This case is sticky because of the unclear boundaries of religious freedom in this country. The couple will only spend up to 18 months in prison. Such a case begs another question that will undoubtedly make its presence known in the upcoming months: Who needs the reform, the Beagleys or the church?