One a Month
Eleven-year-old Kara Neumann died of diabetic ketoacidosis on Easter Sunday, 2008. Like the man in whose name her parents killed her, she died agonizingly slowly, over the course of a few days, due to dehydration and shock. Unlike what her parents believe to be true of the man in whose name they killed her, she did not come back.
Over 170 million people worldwide are afflicted with diabetes. Happily, the vast majority of them are lucky enough not to be children of the approximately half-million Americans who believe that all disease is an illusion created by the Devil, and that it is therefore sinful ever to seek medical attention under any circumstances. The ones who are unfortunate enough to be dependent on such people, of course, will soon be dead.
There have been, in the United States in the last 25 years, 300 established instances of a child’s having died an entirely preventable death due to parental refusal on religious grounds to seek—or even to allow—treatment. That works out to a rate of one a month. Just to be clear, we are not talking about experimental procedures that might possibly have saved the child, and only after some protracted period of duress. We are talking about an injection of insulin, a laparotomy to clear a bowel obstruction, the oral ingestion of some antibiotics to fight an infection—medical facts and near-perfect success rates.
Based on the viewpoint that such refusals are just another permutation of the first-amendment guaranteed “free exercise” of religion, a majority of U.S. states have laws in place protecting them. Wisconsin is among those that at least have exemptions for life-threatening situations, which is why it was possible to arrest Kara’s parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, on the charge of reckless endangerment (not of murder or manslaughter, or even negligent homicide). Her trial is scheduled for May, his for June, and each faces a maximum sentence of 25 years. The case will be extremely important for the future—or lack thereof—of legal protections for demonstrably dangerous extremist religious practices in the United States. And if the past is any indication, it will be anything but a slam dunk for the forces of common sense—in usually progressive Massachusetts, for example, the involuntary manslaughter conviction of two extremist Christians who allowed their infant daughter to die of peritonitis was overturned in 1993, and even before that ruling, they had been sentenced only to probation, having been acquitted of the straight manslaughter charge.
Unsurprisingly, fundamentalist Christians have gone on the warpath, constructing the website helptheneumanns.com in an effort to raise money to hire the slickest possible defense attorneys, and to gallop on their very highest horse in the direction of those who have “no right to judge” Dale and Leilani. The authors of the site have the temerity to open by demanding pity for the parents who have “lost their little girl,” and to phrase the circumstances of her death only as “God chose to take Kara home.” (The site also claims that it was Dale and Leilani themselves who eventually called 911, but this is not true—it was an aunt of Kara’s who does not share the Neumanns’ beliefs.) The lengthy first section of the text cobbles together cherry-picked quotations from a goodly number of Supreme Court decisions involving religion, parental rights, and privacy, in a display of research skills that would be impressive, were its purpose not so despicable. Ostensibly, all this is the philosophy behind the Neumanns’ defense. Those who make it through this section, however, will happen upon the authors’ real argument: that soon, prayer is all Christians will have anyway, once they are unable to pay for medical services, or anything else, because they have refused the Mark of the Beast.
It would be uproarious if it were a joke, but it is not one. The right to prevent life-saving injections from being administered to children is being claimed under the first amendment by people who believe that, any day now, microchips are going to be implanted in everyone’s brain by the Antichrist. (The Neumanns’ sect, as evidenced by its website unleavenedbreadministries.org, is unabashedly apocalyptical, chock full of member prophecies concerning the end times.) By what conceivable definition is this not a cult, and one as dangerous as any that the government has in the past had no qualms about opposing, infiltrating, or even demolishing via military intervention? The fact that it is customary to look the other way because these particular cults are nominally a form of the majority religion is far beyond illogical—it is nauseating. It is an affront not merely to the mind, but to the very flesh that weighs us to the earth. And it is not even consistently applied: technically, Voodoo and Santeria are forms of Christianity too, and the law has never had any qualms about interfering with their practices to protect animals, much less human children—but of course, unlike adherents to those sects, the faith-healing extremists of the so-called Heartland tend to have white skin, rendering them far less “scary” to the people who make the laws... Unfortunately for their kids.
There is really no parallel organizational effort possible on the parts of those who are struck dumb with outrage by all this (hopefully a majority of citizens, if not of state legislatures). Obviously, prosecution is funded by the state, so there is no need to raise money. There is also no need to write letters, since anyone with an important decision to make is either no longer or not yet in a position to be influenced: the Marathon County state attorney has already decided the charge on which to seek conviction, and the Neumanns have already been arrested on that charge (though public sentiment can influence her to decline a plea bargain); the jury will be selected on the basis of their not already having been influenced; and the presiding judge would not entertain letters from the public until the period between conviction and sentencing, when public sentiment might become a factor, if for no other reason than concern about reelection (in this wise, of course, only the opinions of locals would matter). A groundswell of public outcry could influence state legislatures to change the laws, but even if this were to happen tomorrow it would be too late to affect the Neumann trials.
What we can do is talk. To those who agree, those who disagree, anyone who will listen. We can forward news about the case to friends and acquaintances. Create a cause célèbre, a “trial of the century” for the new century. We can, before this spring, turn the eyes of the nation on Marathon County, Wisconsin—not simply because Dale and Leilani Neumann deserve punishment, but for the sake of that one child a month who will continue to die needlessly unless something changes. The case is already famous among those who believe that Kara’s parents are not only innocent, but heroes—and those people are already doing everything in their power to influence the outcome and retain the absurd and deadly privileges the laws of this nation currently extend to them. We can break the equally deadly silence on the parts of Americans who have half a brain in their heads. The laws will serve those who watch those who make the laws. If only religious extremists are paying attention, then the laws will serve them, and more children will die.
The extremists will fight, of course, and have been rehearsing their arguments for years. They will inevitably bring up abortion, and the “hypocrisy” of “liberals” who “suddenly” care about the murder of children, smugly proud of their failure to distinguish between the dispersal of a non-sentient clump of cells and a child with eleven years worth of memories dying a protracted, tortuous death, solely to allow her parents to make a great show of their faith.
They will argue, and indeed have argued already, that Kara’s wishes were to live and die by the faith of her parents. But an eleven year-old has not yet had time to torture her own will into so severe a delusion. She did not die secure in this insult to consciousness that some call faith. She died wondering what horrible thing she had done to make her parents murder her, and too terrified to ask.
Do you perhaps, have sympathy for the Neumanns’ position because, although you are no faith healer, you believe generally in God? In Jesus? Well then, go ahead and imagine a fourth-grader whose body was in the process of killing her being told by her mother that Jesus wanted her to be in the pain she was in. That a quick injection could end her pain not through death, but by making her feel all better, enabling her to go outside with the other children again, and to live for a long time after that, but that Jesus does not want her to have it. That Jesus wanted her dead, even though millions of other children with the same disease got to live. If this makes sense to you, then congratulations, you are magically able to see something in Jesus’s words that the people who read him as a philosopher, as a champion of mercy, are certainly not able to see. If it does not make sense to you, then you must simply have less faith than Dale and Leilani Neumann. They must just be better Christians than you. They certainly think so.
And if there was any conflict in Kara, any tragically misplaced pride in the slow and pointless process by which her life was stolen from her—any, as some choose to call it, “faith”—this proves less than nothing. It was a madness forced upon a child by adults, whom this nation, if it continues to harbor any pretensions even to bare civilization, much less supremacy, must require to know better. No different than if she had been dosed on her deathbed with LSD, and expired under the impression that she was flying away on a unicorn. Needless to say, this would not mean it was not murder.
Those who would defend such madness—who would in fact place it on a pedestal as the very model of a moral existence—have less right than just about anyone on earth to rail against hypocrisy. A gun is a more complex scientific mechanism than an insulin injection—if someone were rushing at you with the intent to butcher you with an ax, and you had a gun to hand, would you decline to defend yourself with it, instead laying it down and praying that God would freeze the ax murderer in his tracks? Would you not even flee from him in a car, if a car appeared? After all, if the ax murderer succeeds in chopping you to bits, doesn’t that simply mean it was God’s will that you die that day? Why on earth would you stop him from “calling you home?” Or is that level of piety a blessing you prefer only to extend vicariously to your dear children?
If the line is simply drawn at medical interference, then we must stop indulging the people who pretend that the matter of what constitutes “medical” interference is so cut and dry. Would you not allow a child with bad vision to wear glasses? Would you not allow her to wash a cut with soap? Soap is a medical innovation, developed by scientists—albeit ancient scientists, ones who, as such, do not symbolize as potent a threat as do modern scientists to your cowardly, self-important nonsense. Your petulant lunacy is not about “faith.” It is about insulting the practitioners of science, as revenge for their having wrested some portion of human existence free of the absolute power of religion. You seek only to torture doctors for having done good through means other than your own, and the instruments you use are the screams of the innocent.
To anyone who believes that this case is “tricky,” for mercy’s sake what to you would not be “tricky?” A religion that believed left-handed children were evil, so when parents had a left-handed child they burned it alive in an oven? Would it at least be cut-and-dry to you that this was unacceptable? And if so, then what exactly is the all-important difference between this hypothetical and the very real cases before you? Taking active steps to end a child’s life versus merely failing to save it? Do you have any idea how incredibly easy it would be to kill a child under your care by merely failing to act in its defense? This is no distinction at all.
If you believe that the crimes of the Neumanns and others like them are in any way defensible or even pitiable, then the only possible conclusion is that you believe that someone’s religious illusions, no matter how unjustifiable and destructive, afford them carte blanche to do whatever they like, even kill. But almost certainly, when the warrant is extracted from the position and laid bare before you in this fashion, you will say that it is by no means your position. After all, the only differences between this case and September 11th are the number of victims, and the fact that the perpetrators were not even fortified with enough of their foul “faith” to kill themselves too.
This is mental incompetence on such a grand scale that these people should no longer even be called human. And yet, tragically, it makes even less sense to call them animals. Animals tend to be very pragmatic about the lives of their offspring. Some species may coldly sacrifice a runt to insure food for its siblings with better chances of survival, but in all the annals of zoological knowledge no beast has ever slaughtered one of its young to emphasize a point. Beings so boastful in their callow, hateful daydreams as the Neumanns are neither animal nor man, but shades listing between kingdoms. Those who insist on praying would do well to pray that the world is soon flushed clean of such burbling gunk. This will not make it happen one millisecond faster, of course, but it might at least do something to burnish the reputations of the prayerful.
Even by the risibly low standards of religious beliefs that stand in opposition to science, this is dumbfounding. The belief that medicine can aid the sick is nowhere near as remote a concept as evolution, or the age of the planet—on the contrary, we have seen it verified firsthand countless times, very nearly every day of our lives. Indeed, Dale and Leilani Neumann do not dispute the fact that people who are ill can go to the doctor and feel better, or that people who would otherwise die can receive medical treatment and live. They simply believe that their God does not want people to do this. Even though their holy book nowhere explicitly says so, they choose to believe that it is implied—by the mere fact that Jesus never tells anyone to go to the doctor. They believe that their God is working its will through the people who preach such things, and who admonish those that stray from such advice—but apparently, not through doctors or nurses, and certainly not through, say, Sir Frederick Grant Banting, the man who in 1921 first purified insulin and developed the first injection treatments for diabetes, an accomplishment that saved countless lives and earned him a Nobel Prize. Quite the contrary, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann presumably believe that Sir Frederick is in Hell—due not to some unrelated misdeed, but specifically for accomplishing this—and that he will soon be joined there by all the parents who chose to allow their gravely ill children to live rather than torture them to death, as well as by many of these children themselves, depending on their degree of complicity in the sin of allowing their lives to be saved.
This is the morality of the God they believe in, of the God they deem worthy of their—and everyone’s—adoring worship and unquestioning obedience. This is their demented idea not only of justice, but of beauty. This is what these people think love means.
Those who know the human psyche to be considerably more fluctuant and fragmentary than the term implies do not allow themselves the convenient poeticism of discussing souls. If this were otherwise, however, it might here be suggested that those of Dale and Leilani Neumann are as malformed as those of Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, or anyone you care to name.
We have, after all, had no trouble correctly judging certain worldviews to be evil or barbaric for less. Manson or the Nazis, for example, within the depths of their delusions believed their victims to be guilty of some nebulous crime or other. The Aztecs sacrificed innocents, but did so because they believed it necessary so that all others might live. Dale and Leilani Neumann killed their daughter not because they believed her guilty of something, or because they believed her death necessary to save others, but because they believe that saving lives is itself immoral. It makes even less sense. Less sense than the cult of Charles Manson, the Third Reich, or “faith” that the sun will vanish unless the still-beating heart is manually ripped from the cracked chest of a screaming child before a cheering crowd.
And a sizeable percentage of the adult, voting citizens in a nation that never tires of billing itself as the World’s Greatest have “mixed feelings” about it.
Unbelievably, the dominant reaction of people on message boards devoted to the case, even of those afflicted to nowhere near as dangerous a degree with the pathology the Neumanns call faith, is to be overwhelmed by the case’s complexity. The situation is complex, yes—in the sense that madness, that evil, is always complex. But the verdict is not. They are killers. The fact that they are killers because they believe in things that aren’t really there does not excuse them any more than it excused the Son of Sam.
You may feel very strongly that the two examples are quite different. They are not. You feel that they are different because you have been told that they are, just like Dale and Leilani Neumann were told that allowing their eleven-year-old daughter to dehydrate to the point where her internal organs crumpled like old contact lenses left in their case for a year was morally superior to giving her a simple injection. Just like Kara herself was told during her life, and just like, it is sad to say, she would more than likely have grown to tell her own children, whom she might very well have murdered by withholding medical treatment, had she lived to have any rather than being murdered herself. Had that been the case, then a writer of the subsequent generation would have excoriated her as a murderess, just as her parents are now being excoriated for murdering her. Just as, had Dale or Leilani been snuffed out in pre-adolescence by their own presumably religious extremist parents, a writer of the previous generation would have been roasting their parents over the coals but fawning over them as martyrs. As indeed, being children, they would have been.
But what happened being what happened, being the parents of a dead child who would still be alive in the hands of any parents responsible enough to be worthy of the name, Dale and Leilani Neumann, what can be said to you now?
That you have gambled and lost your child on a hand that deep down you must—must—have known was a losing one. All those times you wondered whether it was in fact all a lie, but quickly drove the thought from your minds—not because of how strong your faith is, but because you could not bear the thought of admitting you had been wrong before people who might say “I told you so.” This pride, the very emotion you believe to have been the first sin, was worth more to you than not only your daughter’s life, but also the sanity she must surely have lost, bit by agonizing bit, as her parents murdered her just to make an insane point to strangers.
You have sacrificed your child on the altar of your vanity, and your vanity alone. She died solely so you could both grin and shout “Look at me! I am the most religious person in the room!” Well, you have both gotten your wish. People are looking at you. And if there is any justice—real justice, not the arbitrary fanaticism with which your order your tiny minds—you will soon be the most religious people in prison. May you rot there, and may “faith” of your rancid stripe rot itself out of existence.
Sexo Grammaticus is Lord High Editor of The 1585