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Religion, Law, and the Medical Neglect of Children

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Religion, Law, and the Medical Neglect of Children in the United States, 1870-2000 - 'The Science of the Age'

By: Lynne Curry

Podcast Interview:

Revisit Lynne Curry's conversation with Sace Elder about Religion, Law, and the Medical Neglect of Children in the U.S. This episode originally aired as Season 10, Episode 1 of the SHCY podcast. You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting our podcast website, or you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Lynne Curry is Professor Emerita of History at Eastern Illinois University, USA. Sace Elder is Professor and Chair of History at Eastern Illinois University. 

This review was originally published in the Journal of American Studies 55, no. 3 (July 1, 2021):

This is an important contribution to Palgrave’s Studies in the History of Childhood series that will interest legal historians, as well as historians of childhood, medicine, and religion. It should also be of use to current lawmakers. The stated aim is to “shift the focus of this inquiry so that childhood appears at the centre.” This is undoubtedly achieved when thoroughly considering children in depth through various lenses as the public, physical, metaphysical, and infected child. It is a necessary and overdue approach to a topic where disputes have become Constitutional debates between adults, regardless of child victims. Various historical cases are contextualized with developments in societal, medical, and spiritual thinking, and changes in both state and federal laws, to construct an intricate narrative. The book ends with a sobering conclusion: “As long as adults’ liberty to deny children medical care remains enshrined in American law, children whose physical well-being, and indeed their very lives, may depend on the science of the age remain vulnerable”.

 The author elevates the narrative above a simplistic science-versus-religion rhetoric, pointing to examples of preachers challenging individuals like Alexander Dowie, who proclaimed a “religious crusade against practitioners of scientific medicine”. However, a focus on child deaths linked to religious medical neglect does dictate the tone. Given the topic, that may be unavoidable without tangential content. Religious objections to recommended medical treatment were not always as obviously against the best physical interests of the child. The science of the day is sometimes overturned by the science of tomorrow and, retrospectively, religious objections to some recommended, even state-mandated, medical treatments have proven to be in the best interests of children. Contextualizing cases of medical neglect with prominent religious objections to eugenic sterilizations of children that numerous states continued with following the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case may have helped portray the wider unease of increasing scientific and state influences on children’s daily lives.

At first glance this may appear to be a narrow study focusing on a small number of child deaths, but it is much more. Changing perceptions of children in American society and the struggle courts went through to define the role of parents and authorities in their lives following child-saving Progressive reforms are explored in detail. This is an examination of the legal chaos caused when two dearly held societal ideals collide: freedom of religion and a duty of care to children. Curry details how legal paradoxes have been created in some states that simultaneously enshrine parental rights to refuse medical treatment on faith grounds in law but criminalize parents if a child dies as a result. It is shown that parental rights are still prioritized over child welfare where religious exemptions to neglect and abuse laws remain in place. It is not often perceived by policymakers that a child’s and an adult’s best legal interests may conflict, but this does occur, demonstrated by the growing number of American children attempting to access vaccinations against parental wishes.  The Chicago Tribune may have declared in that “a sick child has rights” but this is still not always the case. Children’s rights in the United States had no golden moment. It took three attempts for Congress to pass child labour restrictions that satisfied the Supreme Court. The agricultural exemptions of the Fair Labor Standards Act remain in place, leaving hundreds of thousands of children working in one of America’s most dangerous industries. Judith Sealander’s analysis of children in the twentieth-century United States viewed it as a lost opportunity for children’s rights and is therefore entitled The Failed Century of the Child. This work unquestionably adds weight to Sealander’s argument. Curry points to the legal arguments of James Dwyer to highlight that all children have a shared interest in having their medical needs met and are owed equal protection in law by states courtesy of the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet this is ignored, with some children granted greater legal protections than others due to the spiritual beliefs of their guardians. It is argued that protecting parental choice and religious freedoms in this way violates children’s rights. Curry has forensically tracked the history of the law and religious-based medical neglect of children since. However, in calling attention to the current vulnerability of children and a consistent failure to respect their Constitutional rights, it must be hoped that the most significant impact of this major historiographical contribution is a contemporary one.  

Jack Hodgson, University of Northumbria



About Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry is Professor Emerita of History at Eastern Illinois University, USA. She is the author of several works that examine the intersections of American medical and legal history and the history of childhood, most recently Religion, Law, and the Medical Neglect of Children in the United States, 1870-2000 published in the Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Previous works include The DeShaney Case: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Dilemma of State Intervention (Landmark Legal Cases and American Society Series, University Press of Kansas, 2007); The Human Body on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents (On Trial Series, ABC-CLIO 2002); and  Modern Mothers in the Heartland: Gender, Health, and Progress in Illinois, 1900-1930 (Women and Health: Cultural and Social Perspectives, The Ohio State University Press, 1999).

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.