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Mom Fights Prayer That Excludes Medicine

Religion: Former Christian Scientist, whose son died while she and other parishioners prayed, has brought change to laws in four states.


BRONSON, Iowa — Rita Swan keeps a folder stuffed with pictures of smiling kids, all of them now dead. They died for lack of medical care as their parents prayed, she says--just as her own son died 19 years ago.

The folder's contents inspire Swan in her efforts to end legal protection for parents who allow harm to their children in the name of religion.

The former Christian Scientist has helped change the law in four states--Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and South Dakota. But until this year her battle has consisted of small victories and big disappointments.

Suddenly, she feels like she's on the winning side.

"We've been in the trenches so long, since 1979, when we first went on 'Donahue.' We've tried everything. We've been on national TV 15 times," she said. "We've been doing the grunt work in legislatures across the country. We've worked with criminal and civil courts; we've worked with physicians, documenting these deaths. Hopefully, some of these strings are coming together now."

The breakthrough came in January when the Supreme Court let stand a $1.5-million verdict against four Christian Scientists. The case involved 11-year-old Ian Lundman of Independence, Minn., who died in 1989 after falling into a diabetic coma while his Christian Scientist mother and a church care provider prayed.

Christian Science shuns modern medicine and teaches the healing power of prayer.

The high court refused to reinstate a $9-million punitive damage award the boy's father, Douglass Lundman, won and then lost against the Christian Science Church. However, the court, without comment, turned away arguments that Lundman's $1.5-million verdict against four individuals violated religious freedom.

It was the first civil verdict against the church for its health practices.

"She's a tireless worker," Lundman's attorney, Jim Kaster of Minneapolis, said of Swan. She helped him gather information on such cases, as she has in other similar trials.

"She's so focused, I don't know how she does it," Kaster said. "When you have children die with permission or consent of a parent, there's nobody out there as a watchdog."

Michael Botts, general counsel for the National Council Against Health Fraud, said Swan "is the engine that keeps things going. She's the hub of the wheel."

Since 1983, when Swan formed CHILD--Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty--she has been its sole, unpaid director. The operation, with 300 members, mainly doctors and other professionals, is run from her basement.

After Swan's son, 16-month-old Matthew, died of treatable meningitis, Christian Scientists made her feel guilty, telling her that prayer would have saved the boy if Swan had been more pure or religious. Swan, now 52, and her husband Doug, 56, broke from the church and severed ties with her family.

Her own wrongful-death case against the church failed.

"There was no precedent, no case law, and we lost. The trial judge dismissed the case on 1st Amendment grounds," she said. "Now all these years later, we have an appellate-level ruling saying the Christian Scientist practitioner has a duty to get medical help."

At least 165 children have died since 1975 because medical care was withheld on religious grounds, Swan said. Her folder has examples.

Ian Burdick, 15, of Van Nuys, died of diabetes in 1987. Natalie Rippberger, eight months, died of meningitis near Santa Rosa in 1984. Kris Ann Lewin, 13, of Pittsburgh, died of bone cancer that was untreated for a year. The parents in each case tried to heal with prayer.

The Boston-based First Church of Christ, Scientist, declined to comment on Swan, but did supply the church's own booklet of children who faced grave peril and survived because of prayer.

Swan said the church's view misses the point.

"We know that medical science is not perfect. But it's unethical and should be illegal to deny children the known resources of medical science. They should at least have a chance," she said.

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