By Bruce, an Ex-Christian Scientist group writer.
A number of child death cases in the 1980s and 90s involving Christian Scientists, exposed The Mother Church, Christian Science practitioners, and Christian Science nurses to the potential of criminal and/or civil liability for the deaths of children under their care and/or treatment. The Church subsequently published a policy to make it clear that it is an individual member’s decision whether to use medical treatment:
It’s up to each person who practices Christian Science to choose the form of health care he or she wants.1
This policy is frequently repeated by the Church’s Committees on Publication (media relations contacts) in columns, blogs, and editorials. Indeed, The New York Times reported in 2010 that, “Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.”2
Free to choose, or forced to ‘radically rely’?
This represents a dramatic change from the ‘radical-reliance’* culture I and many others were raised in–a culture that strongly discouraged any mixing of medicine with Christian Science. But unfortunately, this new policy is not always honored in practice. Most Christian Science institutions—including schools, summer camps, and nursing facilities—discourage, limit, or prohibit medical treatment.
For example, nowhere does Principia College (a school for Christian Scientists) have a policy acknowledging an individual’s right to choose the form of health care they want. In fact, Principia is explicit that:
Members of the faculty, staff, and student body will be expected to rely on Christian Science for healing” (Policy 4).3
However, they make a ‘compassionate’ exception for short-term use of medicine:
In certain circumstances, temporary use of doctor-prescribed medicine is compassionately regarded (see Science and Health, p. 444: 7-10). Under such circumstances, the college will try to find a way to help a student complete as much of the current term’s academic work as possible . . .4
Principia’s compassion has its limits, however:
Students who rely on medicine beyond one semester will be asked to temporarily withdraw until such usage is discontinued. A withdrawal is not a suspension and does not negatively affect the student’s record.5
So, Principia will show a student the door if they employ medical treatment beyond one semester. They are quick to add however, that such action is not a ‘suspension’ (i.e., not disciplinary), although it probably feels like it for the student who is forced to leave.
And how about faculty and staff? Let’s say a middle-aged professor chooses to seek medical care for a health issue they have struggled with unsuccessfully using Christian Science. If they require medication long-term, is their situation ‘compassionately regarded’? Or, will they lose their job?
Christian Science nursing facilities are even less flexible than Principia. The Commission for Accreditation of Christian Science Nursing Organizations/Facilities is adamant that medical treatment of any kind is not to be allowed:
Patients in Christian Science nursing facilities have chosen to rely on prayer for healing while receiving practical, physical care from Christian Science nurses, without the use of medicine, medical techniques, therapy, or procedures.6
Their policy requires a patient to have made the choice to rely exclusively on prayer when being admitted to a facility. But what if a patient changes her choice sometime after being admitted? Is it okay to take pain medication if pain becomes unbearable? Their answer is “no”, and consequently, many elderly Christian Scientists die in great pain in Christian Science nursing facilities—notwithstanding the fact that Mary Baker Eddy made provision for medical relief from extreme pain in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (p. 464).
When my mother was in pain at a Christian Science nursing facility, we were put into the bizarre position of having to smuggle pills to her. Some days later, she called me in tears–imploring me to transfer her to a medical hospice. I was able to arrange the move, where she later died under compassionate palliative care.
My mother made a choice to change the form of health care she wanted. But, she was in full possession of her mental faculties. What about patients who suffer from dementia, don’t realize they can choose to leave, or are dissuaded by an assertive Christian Science practitioner; or are children and cannot choose for themselves?
In 1993, the Church severed its official ties with Christian Science nursing facilities, which are now organizationally independent, and independently accredited. Principia has also always asserted that it is ‘unaffiliated’ with The First Church of Christ, Scientist. However, there is little doubt that the Christian Science Board of Directors could ask these institutions to fully implement its policy on this issue and they would comply.
To come into compliance, Principia would need to change its policy to make it clear that a student is free to choose the form of health care they want, and if it is medical care they will be allowed to complete their studies and graduate. Christian Science nursing facilities can comply by informing incoming patients in writing of their right to choose to move to a medical facility at any time, with no questions asked and no explanation needed.
Until such changes are made at these various Christian Science-affiliated institutions, the Church cannot honestly claim that Christian Scientists are completely free to choose the form of health care they want. The cultural and peer pressure to rely only on Christian Science for health care is extremely strong. The freedom exists on paper, but not so much in practice.
* This term arises from this statement from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: “Only through radical reliance on Truth can scientific healing power be realized.” (p. 167).
1 “What is Christian Science? [Relationship with Western Medicine].” Christian Science. The Christian Science Board of Directors. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
2 Vitello, Paul. “Christian Science Church Seeks Truce With Modern Medicine.” New York Times. 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
3 “Purpose and Policies.” The Principia. The Principia. 22 Oct. 1944 (Modified: 30 Nov. 1962, and 26 Oct. 1983). Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
4 “Spiritual Reliance.” Principia College (2015 – 2016 Catalog). The Principia. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
6 “Christian Science Nursing is spiritually based healthcare.” The Commission. The Commission for Accreditation of Christian Science Nursing Organizations/Facilities, Inc. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.