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May 26th, 2009
11:04 AM ET

Should a state's mandate trump religious beliefs?

By David Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Twenty years ago, I went to Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on a January night to cover the arraignment of Larry Cottam for the death of his 14-year-old son, Eric. The boy had starved to death. Arraignments are usually held in courthouses, but Cottam was too weak from malnutrition to leave the hospital. He sat in a wheelchair, an intravenous tube in his arm, his six-foot frame down to 139 pounds as he listened to the charges the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was bringing against him. It was a strange scene.

His wife, Leona, was also charged in her son’s death. But that would come later. That night, doctors were too busy trying to save her life. She and their daughter, Laura, were elsewhere in Mercy Hospital, receiving treatment for severe malnutrition.

Larry Cottam was a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor and truck driver. He had been without work for months but didn’t believe in handouts for his reclusive family. He thought God would intercede on their behalf. The Cottams withered as they waited in vain at their two-story home on a dead end suburban street. Authorities said Eric ate his last meal 42 days before his death. The 5' 10" teenager’s body weighed 69 pounds.

I thought about the Cottams as I was reading a line in a statement to the media from Calvin P. Johnson, attorney for 13-year-old Daniel Hauser’s parents: “It is a violation of Spiritual Law to invade the consciousness of another without their consent.”

In Minnesota, where Danny was living before he and his mother fled, the state has a law requiring parents to provide necessary care to a child. Danny has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but his parents do not think chemotherapy is the right treatment for the boy, Johnson said. In fact, Danny thinks chemo will kill him, according to the attorney.

At a hearing, Brown County District Judge John R. Rodenberg said the boy's "best interests" require that he receive medical care to combat his Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Chemotherapy has a 90 percent success rate with this cancer. Without chemotherapy, Danny’s doctor testified there’s a 95 percent chance the cancer will kill him.

Danny and his mother fled the state rather than comply with the court. They returned to Minnesota on Monday.

“This is a case of Love vs. Power. Love gives. Power takes,” Johnson wrote in his news release.

In the case of Larry and Leona Cottam, no one argued that couple didn’t love their children, nor did prosecutors question the sincerity of their religious convictions. But a jury convicted Larry and his wife, Leona, of third-degree murder just the same.

Last year, a Wisconsin girl named Madeline Neumann slipped into a coma and died after her parents chose prayer over medical treatment for the diabetic 11-year-old. The state charged her parents, Leilani and Dale Neumann, with reckless homicide. A jury convicted Leilani on Friday. Dale is scheduled to stand trial in July.

No one likes the notion of the state imposing its will over deeply held spiritual beliefs, but are there times when the government should dictate what care a child receives – no matter what the parents say?

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