BOSTON — In 1902, Merrill Reed and his wife, residents of Los Angeles, were acquitted by a jury of their peers in the first case tried under California law testing the practice of spiritual healing.
The couple had lost a child to diphtheria, then a common cause of children's deaths. No one doubted the parents' love for the child, or their attentiveness at her bedside or their sorrow over her death. Medically, it was questionable whether the child could have been saved. They were prosecuted, however, because they turned to another source of aid just then becoming widely known--the religious practice of Christian Science healing.
The issues in People vs. Reed are being retried today. As several Times articles have reported, the state Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case of California vs. Laurie Walker, a Christian Science mother who lost a child to meningitis in 1984. Two similar cases are pending. These cases have been characterized in the media as tests of religious freedom, but the full issues involved are more complex, and more difficult, than this assessment suggests.
The Reed case pitted Los Angeles' turn-of-the-century medical Establishment against a spiritual movement that considered healing to be a normal, intelligible part of Christianity--not a miracle, but a consistent spiritual discipline that produced consistent results.
The prosecution argued that the child should have been treated medically, period. Several doctors testified on diphtheria antitoxin, which had come into use a few years earlier. Under cross-examination, they differed among themselves on the antitoxin's dangers and acknowledged that many children died in spite of it.
The defense based its case on the testimony of individuals healed, or whose children had been healed, in Christian Science. The court allowed 20 to testify from among several hundred who volunteered. They were a diverse group--several mothers, a civil engineer, businessmen, laborers, a journalist, a physician, the county's elected assessor, even a former associate justice of the California Supreme Court, John D. Works, who was later elected to the U.S. Senate. The group testified to healings of a range of conditions, including diphtheria.
In his closing remarks the defense attorney asked the jurors to understand, rather than prejudge, the honest choices growing out of such experiences. "This is," he stated, "a matter for your consideration, and for your profound consideration. It is part of the struggle that has been going on during all of the ages; those in power, those who entertain different opinions, say to those who differ from them, 'You shall not'; and 'We will lay the heavy hand of the law upon you if you differ from us.' "
In spite of the vast changes in the world since 1902, this issue still deserves profound and honest consideration.
Obviously, the practice of medicine has become immensely more sophisticated, more technically impressive. Despite malpractice cases and a countercurrent of disenchantment, it has also become much more legally coercive. Medical decisions are now routinely imposed by force of law in a variety of situations involving adults as well as children. Few would question the good intentions of individual doctors in these situations, but many, including some within the profession, have questioned the wisdom of ceding so much decision-making authority in health care to the state.
Christian Scientists question not only the wisdom but also the benefits of forcing orthodox medical care on everyone. They respect the compassionate commitment of physicians, but their own practice of spiritual healing involves a perspective on human health radically different from conventional biomedical assumptions. This perspective emphasizes the love of God for every individual and insists that prayer in harmony with it brings to health and healing a powerful new dimension.
Most important, the healing practice of Christian Science has continued to bring significant results. The evidence that has accumulated from this practice over the decades now extends to many thousands of cases, including healings of conditions diagnosed as terminal and incurable as well as conditions considered medically treatable. While it would be easy to dismiss a single healing or even a number of them as coincidences to be expected under the law of averages, the collective experience of healing in Christian Scientists' lives has been on a much larger scale.