Prayers, Parental Duty : Child Deaths Put Faith on Trial

Times Staff Writer

When 8-month-old Natalie Middleton-Rippberger first fell ill that November, her worried parents sought what they considered the very best help available. They turned to God.

As the feverish baby grew sicker, Mark Rippberger and Susan Middleton hired a Christian Science practitioner to pray over their youngest child. But Natalie’s condition only seemed to worsen.

By the seventh day, Natalie’s eyes were unfocused and her back was stiff. Her parents still prayed. By the 10th day, the baby was wracked by convulsions, her tiny fists clenched and her breathing labored. Her exhausted parents remained at her crib around the clock, praying for her to get well.


A second practitioner was summoned to their Healdsburg, Calif., home.

Everyone prayed.

Child Died

Just before dawn on the 15th day, Natalie died in her father’s arms. An autopsy revealed meningitis, a disease doctors say simple antibiotics almost certainly would have cured.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist does not use the word “death” to describe the end of Natalie Middleton-Rippberger’s short life, or the failure of its methods to save her. Instead, Christian Science calls it a “loss.”

But the state of California calls it felony child abuse. Now Mark Rippberger and Susan Middleton are on trial here for manslaughter, facing up to four years in prison if convicted.

Their case is one of six currently in courts around the country involving Christian Scientists who relied on faith healing to save their children, and on religious exemption statutes drafted by their own church to save themselves. Three of the cases--all meningitis deaths--are in California.

Prosecution Surge

The sudden surge of prosecutions against a respected, 110-year-old religion after a hiatus of two decades is raising provocative questions about First Amendment rights, child abuse laws, the medical profession, the politics of religion and the immeasurable powers of faith itself.

“We’re going to retry ‘Inherit the Wind’ all over again,” declares David Mackenroth, the Sacramento attorney defending Natalie’s parents. “They’re putting Christ Jesus on trial for quackery.”


David Dunn, the assistant Sonoma County district attorney prosecuting the couple, fears that the six known cases represent but a fraction of the actual child “losses” under Christian Science.

“This,” he warns darkly, “is Jonestown in slow motion.”

On advice of their attorneys, the accused parents refused to discuss their cases, fearing that any statements they make might be used against them in court.

“It’s all based on ignorance,” is the only thing William Hermanson, a Sarasota bank vice president, would say after a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in the death of his 7-year-old daughter, Amy, whose diabetes was treated by prayer alone. Hermanson and his wife, Christine, are to be sentenced Friday.

“Everybody has the right to religious beliefs,” said prosecutor Deno Economou. “We’re talking about religious practices, and the line there is when you endanger the life of a child.”

“If praying is deemed criminally negligent,” counters Middleton-Rippberger attorney Mackenroth, “that’s a pretty hefty decision for society.”

Whether the flurry of charges amounts to criminal prosecution or religious persecution is a question that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this month declined to block the prosecution of Laurie Walker of Sacramento, whose 4-year-old daughter died of meningitis after her mother relied on prayer to cure her. The Walker case is now expected to go to trial this fall.

Other Cases

The remaining three Christian Science cases also are likely to come to trial later this year:

--In Paradise Valley, Ariz., John and Catherine King are charged with felony child abuse for the June 5, 1988, bone cancer death of their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Ashley King. According to prosecutor K. C. Scull, the girl’s parents relied solely on prayer to heal a leg tumor that ballooned to 41 inches in circumference and fractured her thigh in two places during her 7-month illness. By the time a visiting teacher notified authorities and Ashley was examined under court order at a hospital, the cancer was terminal, Scull said. “If it had been treated from day one, doctors say she would have had a 60% chance of survival,” he said.

Defense attorney Bob Hooker argues that the Kings had reason to believe they were protected by religious exemption statutes in Arizona and describes the spate of Christian Science indictments as the result of “prosecutorial boredom.” He also blames pediatrics associations, which are lobbying for repeal of religious exemptions and passage of laws that would state clearly that parents must seek medical care for seriously ill or injured children.

“They are charging around on a white horse,” Hooker said. “Basically, they feel threatened by alternative forms of treatment and are doing it for economic reasons.”

--In Boston, David and Ginger Twitchell are accused of manslaughter for relying on prayer alone to cure their 2-year-old son, Robyn, of the same type of congenital bowel obstruction that killed child movie star Heather O’Rourke. “What the state forgets in all these cases is that medicine is fallable,” said defense attorney Steve Lyons.

A few hours before he died after a five-day illness in April, 1986, Robyn appeared to rally, Lyons said. “He was playing with his kitten. He played with his parents. It looked to Mr. and Mrs. Twitchell for all the world that the child had responded. There was a dramatic improvement in his condition.”

But prosecutor John Kiernan, acknowledging that the Twitchells “appeared to be devoted parents,” insists that parental duty, not religious beliefs, is the real issue. “I bristle when I hear First Amendment rights,” he said. “What about the right to life of the baby?”

--In Santa Monica, Lise and Eliot Glaser lost their 17-month-old son, Seth, to spinal meningitis in March, 1984. The defense is likely to focus on the baby’s swift and sudden death--within 27 hours of the first symptoms--and argue that conventional medicine may not have been able to save him.

Known as “faith deaths,” such cases are neither new nor limited to Christian Science, which, in fact, makes up only a handful of them.

CHILD, an Iowa-based organization which tracks such cases, counts 137 children over the last 16 years who have died after being denied medical treatment on religious grounds. Only seven were Christian Scientists. Before the current spate of charges, the last Christian Science case was in 1967.

2 Other Cases Cited

Other “faith deaths” have included that of an Amish baby whose whooping cough went untreated and the starvation of a Pennsylvania teen-ager whose fundamentalist father refused to buy groceries on grounds that God would provide food.

But the half-dozen cases now in the courts, and a seventh one under investigation in Minnesota, mark the first serious crackdown against Christian Scientists, whose 1,900 churches make it the largest organized religion in the country to shun most conventional medical treatment.

Although church doctrine forbids a census, membership estimates range from 250,000 to 650,000; adherents often are described as well-educated, financially secure professionals who are active and well-liked in their communities.

Mary Baker Eddy never specifically forbade medical treatment for Christian Scientists, and the church readily admits that going to a doctor is a choice left to the individual. “Mechanical” treatments such as dental care, eyeglasses and the setting of broken bones are widely accepted and no one faces excommunication if he does choose medical care over Christian Science.

Christian Science healing does not involve any ritual or public spectacle. It centers around private prayers by the patient and immediate family, often with the aid of a “practitioner,” who is accredited by the church after a two-week course and permitted to heal as a vocation, charging a minimal fee of $5-$15 a day. Christian Science healing is covered by most major insurance carriers, as well as by Medicare, if it is performed in a rest home.

But Christian Science and medicine “cannot be combined,” said Nathan Talbot, chief spokesman and lobbyist for the Boston-based church, because they are seen as diametrically opposed.

Left Sect

“It’s terrifying for people who live with this religion 24 hours a day to realize that God won’t follow you through the hospital doors,” said Rita Swan, who founded CHILD after leaving Christian Science under tragic circumstances 12 years ago.

An English professor in Sioux City, Iowa, Swan was a life-long Christian Scientist who had witnessed what she believed to be spiritual healings in her family, including her husband’s recovery from severe burns when a deep-fat fryer fell on him.

When the Swans’ 16-month-old son, Matthew, developed a high fever and collapsed, his parents called a practitioner, who told the panicky parents that their fear was causing the baby to grow worse, Swan said.

It was clear to the Swans that prayers weren’t working. Matthew couldn’t move, not even to blink or swallow. He screamed constantly. Finally, the practitioner suggested he had a broken neck.

“I dashed to the emergency room with a nearly dead baby in my arms,” Swan recalled. Despite emergency brain surgery, Matthew died within days.

“I do wonder how many deaths and how many prosecutions it is going to take to get the message through to these stubborn people,” Swan now says. She has filed a so-far unsuccessful civil suit against the church and practitioner.

Talbot has his own message to get through, and he finds his audience just as stubborn.

He says statistics compiled by the church indicate that Christian Science children have a mortality rate a fraction of that in the general population.

The seven cases that have come under public scrutiny since 1984 represent the church’s “total losses” involving children during that time, Talbot said.

Not Always Reported

However, Talbot acknowledged that deaths need not be reported to the church and conceded that his figures do not include Christian Science children who may have been taken to a doctor at the last minute.

By using an “extremely conservative” figure of 7,000 Christian Science children in the country, Talbot said, the average death rate is 1.6 children per year.

“That comes out to 23 per 100,000, compared to Health and Human Service figures of 53 per 100,000 in the general population,” Talbot said.

“More than 100 children have died of diabetes under medical care since Amy Hermanson,” he added. Talbot said that he extrapolated the figure from monthly vital statistics reports by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

(The National Center for Health Statistics has data only through 1986, the year that Amy Hermanson died. It reported 66 diabetes deaths in 1986 among children 19 and under, but the circumstances of those deaths are not specified.)

“If you were to take the cases of children lost under medical care and spotlight it with the intense, merciless attention of Christian Science cases, you could discredit the entire medical profession,” Talbot said.

“Who could imagine prosecuting a parent when a doctor failed?”

Over the years, Christian Science lobbyists have succeeded in either drafting or playing a significant role in the wording of religious exemption statutes in the child welfare codes of 47 states.

And while they insist that the statutes were designed to protect them from exactly the legal nightmare they now face, prosecutors argue that the laws do not cover manslaughter or other serious crimes.

As a result, the church is waging a multimillion-dollar fight for what, in the long run, could be its survival.

“Healing is the very core of our church,” said Talbot.

Although the church itself is not under any type of criminal investigation or indictment, it has hired law firms on both coasts to file friend-of-the-court briefs and do research for the various defense attorneys.

Church officials also have embarked on an ardent public relations campaign, visiting newspapers in communities where trials are pending, lobbying state legislatures and debating critics on radio and television talk shows. After the Hermansons were convicted, the church took out full-page ads in Florida newspapers explaining the Christian Science position.

Defense funds established for the parents have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars, and contributors in Arizona were even urged to funnel donations through the church so that they would be tax-deductable.

Born of Medical Crisis

The church itself was born of a medical crisis on a frigid February day in New England in 1866, when Mary Baker Eddy fell on ice and suffered apparent internal injuries. As she read her Bible in bed three days later, she had what she would later describe as a revelation--that man was not matter, but spiritual. Her symptoms vanished, and the seed of Christian Science was planted.

The writings of Mary Baker Eddy form the foundation of the modern church. To Christian Scientists, God is only good and illness and injury have no God-given authority or reality. Disease is often referred to as an error in thinking, which they believe can be healed by drawing closer to God.

“Healing comes not by using human will,” Talbot said, “but by surrendering it. The human mind to us is essentially the source of illness, not the cure.”

Many of the prosecutors, as well as medical doctors and biomedical ethicists, readily agree there is such a thing as spiritual healing.

“There’s no question that the mind has an effect on the body, both positive and negative,” said Dr. Norman Fost of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “One’s attitude can affect the immune system.

“But prayer plus antibiotics will do a whole lot more.”

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota, said that the prosecutions already are having a chilling effect.

“I know from talking to some Christian Science families that they will behave differently now, and the church fears that,” he said.

“It’s a tragic choice to undermine a person’s religious beliefs,” he said, but “children have to be protected by the state because they’re not old enough to hold religious views.”

K. C. Scull, the prosecutor in the bone cancer death of Elizabeth Ashley King, notes that Christian Science churches in England and Canada have yielded to secular law and now require members to seek medical attention for seriously ill minors.

“We have to say as a society that you must seek medical attention for your children,” Scull said. “You cannot depend on faith or leeches or snakes or rain dances or necklaces with special powers.”

In Santa Rosa, a judge’s ruling that the couple’s Miranda rights were violated by police officers who initially questioned them may force the prosecution to drop the case against Mark Rippberger and Susan Middleton. Arguments are scheduled for Thursday.

Meanwhile, Nathan Talbot keeps close watch over the six cases. The parents, he says, are all faring well. None have left the church and a few have had other children since their losses.

“They are trusting God to bring them through this,” Talbot said.

Researcher Lisa Romaine contributed to this story in Denver.