by Elizabeth Reeves
On Thursday Sept. 29, an Oregon jury found Dale and Shannon Hickman guilty of the death of their infant son while performing faith healing practices. Faith healing employs the use of spiritual techniques, including prayer and anointment, to heal disease, accompanied by the refusal of modern medical practices. The mother, Shannon Hickman, went into labor two months premature and delivered the child at home. Obviously, there were extensive complications with the premature birth. When this was discovered, the father, Dale Hickman, began to hold the child in his arms, praying over him and anointing him. The child, born 3 pounds and 7 ounces, died before ever seeing a doctor. Approximately one year later, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted the couple with manslaughter charges. Under Oregon’s mandatory sentencing law, Measure 11, the distraught parents were found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and are facing up to six years and three months in prison.
Honestly, the motive changes everything. The infant’s death was not malicious; this was attempted care. These parents loved their baby. These parents did not want this baby to pass away. This was a highly anticipated child who entered the world too early and tragically passed away. These parents focused on prayer and petition — everything we as Christians preach but rarely utilize. They used their freedom of religion and the religious practices associated with it and are now being prosecuted for it.
Oregon has a law that eliminates “spiritual treatment” as a defense against all homicide charges. Measure 11 ensures parents undergo mandatory sentencing. Thus, according to Oregon law, does this case fall under manslaughter? Yes. Should it? In my opinion, absolutely not.
When asked why he didn’t call 9-1-1, Dale Hickman simply responded, “Because I was praying.” This unspeakable tragedy was not neglect, this was not abuse and this was not murder. This child was loved and this family just faced the loss of a precious life. They prayed over this life; they valued this life. This was a family trying to take care of their child in a way that may not have been typical, but it was the best way they knew how.
Were these parents medically ignorant? Of course. It is possible that they waited just that second too long in anticipating God’s intervention. But here’s food for thought: Who’s to say that wasn’t God’s intervention? Maybe the Lord did respond and no one wants to acknowledge it. As fellow believers, we want to believe it was God’s plan to preserve this infant’s life on earth. However, who’s to say what God’s will is? It could have been the will of God for this child’s life to not continue. Hard to think about, isn’t it? So I pose this question: Did the parents cause the passing of the child or did God? The answer we’ll never know.
Truth is, no one knows if this death is attributed to lack of care, lack of divine intervention, or whether, regardless of medical attention, this child would not have survived. Medical professionals can say they could have saved the baby, but they don’t know. No one knows. There is not any viable forensic proof. These medics cannot see the unseen.
According to an article by Steve Mayes in The Oregonian, “Medical experts testified, there was more than a 99 percent change the baby would have survived” had the parents called 9-1-1. I believe this statement to be false. It can be argued that this baby’s health was fine until he suddenly died. The child lived less than nine hours, and Defense Attorney Mark Cogan argued, “What opportunity was there? What benefit would there have been?” No one knows the exact moment when the child’s health began to decline; hence no one knows if medical attention would have been beneficial.
A baby born two months premature would have struggled with underdeveloped lungs. This child would have experienced significant life-long health concerns that are common in premature children. When does quality of life come into play? As an American culture, we try so hard to preserve life and keep the ill alive when we should instead at times let life take its course and stop intervening, especially when a good quality of life is absent. That child’s life would have been miserable, according to medical officials’ comments in The Oregonian. In the first months of birth the child would have been on respirators and would have experienced many health problems later.
We certainly have a responsibility to protect these children. However, the way in which the parents’ beliefs were treated was mishandled and misdirected. Mind you, the district attorney waited a full year before pressing charges, singling them out for their personal religious beliefs. Is it a coincidence that their indictment took place after the arrest of members Timothy and Rebecca Wyland from their Followers of Christ Church? I think not. The Wylands also failed to seek medical treatment by not taking their daughter to a doctor for a growth that nearly destroyed her left eye. These arrests began what I believe to be a witch hunt by the indictment of not only a group of people but an entire belief system. I imagine this is a politician attacking a family under excruciating circumstances and digging for controversy and publicity.
I urge you to take pity and have compassion for these parents who lost their child. Their practices might not have been typical, but they are facing a time of grief and should be allowed to grieve without being condemned. These parents lost a child they loved and cared about, believing their action was right and just. Is that not punishment enough?