Mon | Aug 10, 2020

Glenn Tucker | The rationalising of child abuse

Published:Thursday | July 16, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Glenn Tucker

I have never sought medical advice from Dr Michael Abrahams. And I don’t think I will. Something tells me I will get an ovary action to whatever he finds. I prefer to watch him on TV dealing with dengue. I hear he just flashed his hand and rid the country of it.

I think I had a similar experience with the Abraham and Isaac story in my childhood. My father seemed to have held to the view that raising kids with some measure of religion was the best way to teach children how to behave ethically. So we were up at about 4:30 each morning for religious matters. I distinctly recall the disturbing story of Abraham agreeing to sacrifice his son. More worrying was the apparent delight my dad expressed in telling the story. Worse, he went back to the story the following morning. In the days that followed, I cast more than a few suspicious glances his way and tried to read his mind. You see, I was the only son he had that was disposed to delinquency, and therefore the most expendable. I even looked around on the property for a place where an altar could be built. I dreamt about it at nights. What if Abraham did not hear when God said, “wait, wait” – as my father claims – ‘at the last second’. What if a bus was passing? Should young children hear certain Bible stories – unfiltered?

And why is Dr Abrahams in the habit of ‘tekking serious ting mek laff’. My first exposure to medical deprivation on religious grounds was when a friend called me in the 1980s – for the third time – to take her to pick up her nine-year-old son from school. He had been having shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness and headaches. I recommended each time that he be taken to a doctor. This was not done. On this occasion, the mother was frantic. The teacher said he was caught eating dirt. After picking up the child, she stopped to get something for him to eat. She returned with two large cartons of cow’s milk. “How often did he get cow’s milk?” I asked. “Twice a day, or so,” was the response. I kept shouting in my mind, “Cow’s milk should never be given to children under 12”. “Iron-deficient anaemia”. I insisted she go directly to a doctor. That is when she pointed out that her religion forbade doctors and she had absolutely no intention of breaking that rule. And how could cow’s milk be bad for anybody. Especially children.

The next time she got out of the car, I asked the child about his father’s name and where he worked. I visited the father and as soon as he was satisfied that I was not from the Family Court, we had a friendly chat, during which he agreed to take the child to spend some time with him and secretly get medical help.

Two weeks later, the mother called me. Triumphant. “The child is doing very well. God is in charge. Keep you doctor.” Amen. But was this child abuse?

Religious exemptions

Globally, every kind of child abuse has been rationalised in the name of religion – beatings, dangerous diets, forced marriages, slavery, exorcism, sexual exploitation, genital mutilation, conversion therapy for LGBT youth and medical neglect. It is well-settled case law that parents do not have a constitutional right to abuse or neglect a child. Nearly all US states, however, have religious exemptions from preventive and diagnostic measures such as immunisations, metabolic testing, blood lead-level tests, newborn hearing tests and other screenings. Don’t laugh, but two states have had religious exemptions from bicycle helmets. So when measles strikes, public health officials have to track down everyone who had contact with an infected person. In 2007, just two cases of measles among religious objectors cost Oregon and a hospital $170,000. Teachers have to stay home. Working parents have to stay home with children in quarantine. Babies, too young to be immunised and immune-compromised children are at risk.

Title 39 Chapter 45 of Idaho’s Health and Safety Act gives parents the legal right to withhold lifesaving medical care. So children in Idaho, because of Followers of Christ beliefs, are suffering and dying. Arrian Granden, 15, died in 2012 after days of nausea and vomiting so much that her oesophagus ruptured. Micah Eells, four days old, died in 2013 of a bowel obstruction, which usually causes excruciating pain and vomiting. Pamela Eells died in 2011 of pneumonia, drowning slowly as her lungs filled with fluid. Cooper Shippy died in 2010 of untreated diabetes shortly before his second birthday. One coroner told the press that she doesn’t even do autopsies when children die without medical care in faith-healing sects.

My sister was travelling through Europe when she called to express concern that many of the beautiful historical churches were closed. Shuttered. Reason? Poor attendance. Persons she spoke to suggested that ethics groups and organisations felt that Christianity had served its purpose, but it was no longer relevant in these modern times. But is the concern just about modern times? I spent the night burrowing through some very old dusty books in a back room and finally found what I was looking for – a Philosophical Review written by Otto Pfleiderer, a German Protestant theologian and one of the most influential representatives of liberal theology. He said that Societies of Ethical Culture were being formed ‘everywhere’ independent of religious organisations as the latter are “… no longer competent to undertake the moral education of people; for though they have in the past played a part in the moral development of mankind, the world has reached the stage at which this aid is no longer required. Indeed, when the leading strings of religion are dispensed with, a nobler and more firmly rooted morality will be established. Under present conditions, religion is not only unable to afford any assistance in the development of a sound morality, but is a positive obstacle in the way…. “ It’s just that this was written 125 years ago. And Pfleiderer is no atheist or agnostic.

Personally, I still think there are benefits associated with personal religiousness. You don’t get hauled out of bed at 4:30 every morning (even when it is raining) without being ‘scarred’ for life. The benefits I have seen include less drug, alcohol and tobacco use. Lower rates of depression and suicide. Better sleep quality, greater hopefulness and life satisfaction. When some of the most harrowing experiences have been related to me, and I ask in amazement, “... So how you dealt with it”? I hear “Prayer”; “Mi church stan up beside mi”, etc. This may be the difference between sanity and self-destructive behaviour. Let’s leave heaven out of it for the time being.

I must admit, however, that some of the most honest, considerate and empathetic persons I know suffered through horribly abusive childhoods without any exposure to religious instruction and parents that were – quite frankly – louts. Their integrity is rock solid.

So should parents who decide to raise their children without religion worry that they are doomed to a life of turpitude, villainy and wickedness? Does religious instruction make moral kids? Does moral intuitions arise on their own in children independently of religious understanding?

Why is Dr Abrahams so silent?

Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. email: