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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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Bryan

    Yes, religious beliefs are just beliefs and most of the time time not true or fact. Common sense should rule. It is sad how religion is getting in the way of this boy's life. He is influenced by his parents not by his own independent thought.

    May 26, 2009 at 11:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. BILL


    May 26, 2009 at 12:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Elizabeth

    Yes, there are definitely times when the state should dictate what care a child should receive. People are entitled to freedom, including freedom of religion, by the Constitution. However, freedoms and rights can be restricted when they trample on another's freedoms, such as their right to life. When the rights belong to minors who are not able to stand up for themselves, someone needs to intervene for them, and this is where the state comes in.

    Religion does good things for a great many people, but it does bad things for many others. It should be treated like any other right or freedom, not given higher value simply because it is religion (especially when the scientific facts prove otherwise).

    I think this also should apply to vaccinations, since people choosing not to vaccinate their children puts the whole population more at risk, especially those that are too sick to be able to receive vaccinations in the first place.

    May 26, 2009 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Sy

    I have no problem with ADULTS letting themselves die for some religious belief. It is when they condemn their minor children to death for the same reason that I think the government should intervene.

    May 26, 2009 at 14:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Peter Wong

    Since belief or adherence in any one religion (i.e. I have never visited any church in which different congregations followed the same traditions, interpretations, beliefs, etc. in the same way) or displayed any reasonable conformity of values for any faith system (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Hindu, etc.). It is my belief that organized religion varies by family, person (i.e. pastor, priest, etc.) or by congregation.

    It would be difficult to set universal guidelines on what is acceptable or unacceptable for a society according to religious beliefs especially since all that is stated above assumes that the US or Minnesota only cares for or has experience with the Christian Faith. For example, during my adult life, I have worshiped at numerous Catholic churches, Lutheran (i.e. ELCA, Missouri and Wisconsin) churches, non-denominational churches, Baptist, etc.) churches. None of them worshiped my GOD in the same way nor tried to promote any form of a universal value system based on religion. Furthermore, the requirement to even subscribe to a religion (i.e. going to church) or to be a follower of a faith is in question in America (i.e. it is widely assumed that you are anti-Christian if you do not believe that you can only worship Jesus within the confines of a church).

    It would be near impossible to make policy based on religion since obtaining a set universal beliefs has been impossible. Maybe this is the wisdom that our Founding Fathers had when they established the Constitution and mandating the separation of Church and State? Not that they did not believe in GOD but understood that you could not govern a disparate society equally or fairly when you don't have a reliable way of understanding what GOD wants.

    I would assume that all of the parents listed in your article loved and cared for their children the best way that they knew how. I would also assume that all of the parents were knowledgeable of their options for assistance, had reasonable access to those options and took the course of action they thought best for their children. However, how can we honestly base correctness of their decisions solely on their adherence to their religious beliefs? It would only be reasonable to ask the following: How long have they participated in their form of religion? Did/does their religion or even their house of worship universally condone the choices they took? Are the interpretations or actions they took clearly stated in the beliefs of their religion?

    Let me be clear, this is not an indictment on GOD, religion, church or any other faith system. The only thing that is clear in these stories is that children suffered at no fault of their own. I really don't know how much closure or help for those that had to endure these tragedies will gain by justifying their actions on adherence to religion or that GOD in some way was deciding which outcome to give to their plights?

    My prayers go out to the family's that have suffered these tragedies and I wish to believe that GOD wishes no pain and suffering on any child and would try anything to prevent it or ease it.

    May 26, 2009 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. KENNY K S





    May 26, 2009 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. elizabeth

    When it comes to children, elderly, mentally/physically handicapped I say yes the state can intervene and should. If an adult is of basically sound mind and decides they do not want any medical intervention so be it, but no one should be able to make those decisions for someone else. When you are of sound mind, in a healthy state you should make a living will and that way your wishes can be carried out should a time come that you can no longer make that decision.

    May 27, 2009 at 04:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Seth

    Yes, the government in these cases should intervene to save the life of a child. It seems ridiculous that these people would chose to neglect modern medicine for the sake of their fictitious beliefs. Prayer hasn’t solved any problem, common sense does however, and that’s what these religious radicals seem to always be lacking.

    May 27, 2009 at 10:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Linda D. Owen

    I believe the state should be allowed to intervene when a minor is involved; however, is the state going to pay for the medical treatment or will his family be held responsible? Also, does this family have any health insurance?

    May 27, 2009 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ed Perone

    I can not believe some of you people on here think that the government
    should get involved. This is why the country is going down hill – fast.
    They all have you scared and believing that they are always right.
    It is time to take a stand.
    The governement, doctors, espec. FDA & Big Pharma has no interest
    in saving people lives.
    What cop outs!

    May 27, 2009 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jill

    In this case where there is a 95% success rate with treatment, withholding treatment is shocking to me. What loving parent, in the name of religion, lets their child die untreated.

    May 27, 2009 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Johnny Too Good

    yeah i know that free religion is the law, but they wanna save the boy's life, no problem there, but what happens when the government says that u cant let your child watch more than 4 hours of tv a day?
    or that u have to put your child to bed by 9 pm?
    or that you're only allowed to give them 1 piece of candy a day?

    May 29, 2009 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Nancy

    I was angered when I heard this story at first. but I found myself in a dilemma of thought the more I heard about it.

    at first, I was angered that the state would have a right to decide something for a child who was brought to this world and raised by the parents. the parents should have the right to decide for their children because they are THEIR children. why should the state have any say in it? but then a news report mentioned that the court generally rules in favor of the doctors only in cases of life and death...in other medical cases that do not threaten the minor's life, the courts usually side with the parents. this made sense to me...

    then, I also thought of children who are abused by their parents...the state after all has the right to take the children away from parents to get them out of harm's way...I have always had somewhat of a problem with this, not because I think these children should stay with abusive parents, but because I feel like the state/goverment sometimes abuse the right that they have taking away children from good homes on the claim of abuse....but nonetheless, these cases are rare....

    so after a lot of painful thinking, I came to the decision with myself that even though I think parents should decide what's best for their children in most cases (I think that should be the case with most cancers as well) but considering this boy has Hodgkin's Lymphoma (which indeed is a very curable cancer-unlike many other cancers) and could live a very long life after his treatment is complete, I think the state was right in this decision. however, I don't think that should be the case if this was a very advanced (almost hopeless) case of Hodgkin's lymphoma in which most of the chemo and treatment suffering would be in vain, in that case I think the parents should be able to decide....

    so in short, I think it depends on the specifics of the medical condition....

    also, I think this child and the parents may benefit from extending sessions of talking with someone (whether a doctor or social worker) who can explain the specifics of this disease to them and why treatment works in most cases....maybe when they have a complete and better understanding of the disease they can make a more informed decision....after all, I'm sure they made their no-treatment decision based on some ideas that they have or some stories that they heard.

    as for faith, well I believe God gave us advanced brains so that we can use them for good of mankind, such as making medical advances that can save people's lives!

    May 30, 2009 at 16:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lauren in Wheeling, WV

    Yes, because religion isn't medicine, it's a philosophy> God created doctors for a reason–to keep His flock safe.

    May 31, 2009 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Doug Wieboldt

    Oh come on Johny Too Good, sending your child to bed at a certain time or having (oh my God!) 3 pieces of candy won't save your child from certain death. So your argument is totally unrelated to saving a child that faces almost certain death. Please make some sort of cogent argument that relates to cancer...

    June 2, 2009 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Csnomas

    Both sets of my grandparents were Christian Scientists. Back then, the state didn't intervene in parents' decisions about health care.

    So when my mom had cavities as a child, her mother followed the advice of her spiritual leaders. They said drilling was fine but novocaine was not. They held my mom down while the dentist drilled and my grandmother prayed in the car so she wouldn't hear the screams. Mom left the church in her 20's, but was so traumatized that she rarely returned to the dentist. She lost most of her teeth by the time she was in her 50's.

    When my dad got painful ear infections, my grandparents punished him for thinking bad thoughts (because, you see, if prayer and good thoughts can heal disease, then the reverse must be true: bad thoughts cause disease and your weakness and sins are responsible for your illness). So they beat him and sent him to read spiritual texts in his room rather than taking him to a doctor. He lost a great deal of his hearing and after he left the church, he wore hearing aids for his entire adult life.

    My parents were permanently scarred, emotionally and physically. But they were the lucky ones – both knew kids who had died horrific, unneccessary deaths and never been spoken of again.

    Parents should not be allowed to martyr their children for their own religious beliefs. Sure, if you want to let yourself die, fine. But you don't have the right to deprive another person of life, health, and well-being, even if that person is a minor in your custody. And you sure as hell don't have the right to torture them the way my parents were tortured.

    June 12, 2010 at 18:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ta Cabido

    Just another note for the record; Kat at no time suggested that Timmy was a lousy lover.And I’m done too…


    November 19, 2015 at 15:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Keneth Macchio

    antivirus gratuit


    August 3, 2016 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply

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