Here and Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Debate Over Opting Out Of Health Insurance For Religious Reasons

Here & Now recently spoke with U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois about a bill he sponsored called The Equitable Access to Care and Health Act (EACH).

The bill would allow individuals to opt out of mandatory health insurance by writing “sincerely held religious beliefs” on their tax return, along with a sworn statement explaining their objection. The Christian Science Church heavily lobbied for it.

Today, host Robin Young speaks with someone who is against the bill. Rita Swan was a Christian Scientist whose son died from spinal meningitis after 12 days of prayer treatment by a Christian Science practitioner.

Swan says her main concern about this bill is that children could be harmed if their parents are exempt from purchasing health insurance.

Young then hears from Michelle Nanouche, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher, who defends the Christian Science practice and responds to Ms. Swan’s accusations.


  • Rita Swan, former Christian Scientist and president of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), Inc.
  • Michelle Nanouche, Christian Science practitioner and teacher.



Well, the Obama administration said today that it met its goal of seven million signups for health care after yesterday's deadline for most. Meanwhile we want to take a closer look at a bill moving through Congress that would exempt people from having to sign up based on their religious beliefs. We spoke with the bill's sponsor, Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, after the bill passed in the House.

He said groups, for instance Oregon's Followers of Christ or Christian Scientists, who don't believe in medical care on religious grounds have a constitutional right to note that on their tax returns and avoid what is essentially a tax, a mandate that they purchase insurance.

The bill is moving through the Senate, and today we want to hear from a former Christian Scientist who opposes it. Rita Swan's infant son Matthew(ph) died from spinal meningitis after 12 days of prayer treatment by a Christian Science practitioner instead of medical care. In a few minutes we will speak with a Christian Science practitioner, but first Rita Swan.

She and her husband founded CHILD, Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, after Matthew's death in 1977, and she joins us now. And Rita, you say your main concern is that if adults are exempted from insurance, it will further endanger their children?

RITA SWAN: Well definitely. There's plenty of data to show that uninsured children are at greater risk. These children will be at particular risk because their parents have these religious beliefs against medical care, and then they won't have insurance, either. According to the bill, there's a perverse disincentive because if the parent goes and gets medical care after he's claimed this religious exemption, then there's a penalty. To penalize somebody for taking their child to the doctor, it sounds quite perverse.

YOUNG: But just because somebody is forced to buy insurance doesn't mean they will get medical treatment.

SWAN: That's true. It's just something that we thought would make it more likely that the children would get medical treatment. And a pediatrician and I did the largest study of child mortality in faith healing sects, and it was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Pediatrics. We studied 172 children who had died after their parents withheld medical care on religious grounds, and 28 of those children were Christian Science children.

YOUNG: Well, and let's talk a little more about your concerns here. You and your husband founded CHILD in 1983 to protect children from what you call religion-based medical neglect because in the 1970s you were both Christian Scientists, and you lost your 16-month-old, Matthew, you say after church healers convinced you not to take him to the doctor when he was seriously ill.

SWAN: Yes, there were times when we told the Christian Science spiritual healer we wanted to dismiss her and go to a doctor instead, and she did talk us out of it.

YOUNG: Well Rita, can you just stop there for a second and explain how could you listen to someone and not take him? Can you explain the pull of your faith?

SWAN: One of the most coercive features of Christian Science is that they will not give you a Christian Science treatment if you voluntarily go to a doctor. That's very frightening to somebody that has lived with that religion all their lives. Christian Science teaches that all disease is mentally caused, morally caused, and in the case of a little child, they believe that it's caused by the sins of his parents.

One of the practitioners told me I should write a letter to my father and patch up a quarrel with my father and that that would make my baby well. I know that sounds unbelievable, but...

YOUNG: Well, and you had had experience right after Matthew was born, before he got so terribly sick, you had a debilitating cyst, so debilitating that you went in and had it removed, and you were ostracized, you say, after that. So you had a sense of what would happen.

SWAN: Yes, I was stripped of church offices and church activities. Then when Matthew got sick, one of the practitioners told me that the reason he got sick was that I had gone to the doctor for this cyst problem. After he died, we were at the funeral home, and the first thing the funeral home director said to us when he found out we were Christian Scientists was oh, then you won't want a notice to come out in the newspaper. Nobody from Child Protection Services bothered us. We chose to make our son's death a public issue.

YOUNG: Oh, so sorry, but you know the argument. Congressman Aaron Schock argues that an exemption for people from the Obamacare mandate is based on clear constitutional grounds, freedom of religion, and a few years after Matthew died, you and your husband filed a wrongful death suit against the church and the healers. But it was dismissed on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court didn't take it up on appeal.

SWAN: Well, we were not successful, but a father in Minnesota who lost his son under Christian Science treatment was successful. He got a $14 million settlement from a jury. And I think that made the church think twice about what they were doing. They are considerably less reckless than they were in 1977. In terms of child protection, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled way back in 1945 that there is no First Amendment right to abuse or neglect a child.

YOUNG: Well, and we should mention that some states have laws that give exemptions from prosecution to parents who don't give medical care to their children based on religion, and you've had some of those laws removed.

SWAN: We've worked very hard on that. In the 1980s there were seven sets of Christian Science parents who were prosecuted for letting their children die. In Oregon, 85 children had died in one church called Followers of Christ that had religious beliefs against medical care. And it has radically changed the behavior of the Followers of Christ. They have not let a child die since September of 2009.

YOUNG: And conversely, do you think that having the exemption might send a signal to those parents?

SWAN: Yes. The Christian Science Church right now is telling its members that federal legislators are providing this exemption because they believe that Christian Science heals disease, and it's a perfectly appropriate substitute for medical care.

YOUNG: Rita Swan, you've spent decades trying to draw attention to what you think is medical malpractice in children. What is that like for you? This is your former church.

SWAN: Well, the cost has been high. The cost of losing our son is extremely high. I don't know. It's hard. You know, I'm 70 years old now, and I would do anything in my power to save another family from going through what we have gone through.

YOUNG: That's Rita Swan, founder of Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, or CHILD. Thank you.

SWAN: Thank you.

YOUNG: Bye-bye. And when we come back, a Christian Science practitioner, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and if you've just joined us, we've been digging deeper into a story we first brought you about two weeks ago about a bill which passed in the House and is now in the Senate that would allow people who disagree with medical care on religious grounds to be exempt from the coverage mandate under Obamacare.

Now before the break we heard from Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist who says she worries the exemption will be seen as an endorsement of rejecting medical treatment for prayer, and that will be especially harmful to children. Rita's son Matthew died in 1977 of spinal meningitis after 12 days of prayer treatment by a Christian Scientist practitioner. That shattered her beliefs, and afterwards she and her husband formed the group CHILD and fought to overturn state laws that protected parents who rejected medical treatment for children.

Rita says since then her former church has become less rigid, but she still worries children will be endangered by the new proposed law. Let's bring in a Christian Scientist practitioner. Michelle Nanouche is a teacher and healer. And Michelle, we know this will be simplistic because faith is a complicated and deep thing, and we don't normally question it. But in this case, religious groups are asking for an exemption from a law that everyone else is required to follow. So start with non-medical prayer healing. You believe it works.

MICHELLE NANOUCHE: Well, I can give you an example from my own life. I developed a painful growth in one of my breasts, and I decided to rely on God through prayer for healing of that condition.

YOUNG: But that could have been cancer. No immediate thoughts of I better go get this biopsied?

NANOUCHE: You know, I had immediate thought that I do not want to die. Within my own life, I'd been healed of walking pneumonia. I'd been healed of a broken bone. It was natural to me to go after disease with the tools that I had in my war chest to defeat it.

YOUNG: Well, but you know the criticism, that practitioners might keep someone from going to get medical help when in fact the prayer doesn't work.

NANOUCHE: Practitioners are engaged to pray. That's it. As far as individual health care decisions, those are determined by each parent, by each individual.

YOUNG: Well, let's hear from another practitioner. This is Kevin Gronke(ph). He is on the Christian Scientist Church website.

KEVIN GRONKE: Not long ago I had someone whose family asked them to go into the hospital, and they said, would I continue to pray for him? And I said yes, I would, but what I said I would do would be to pray just with a sense of love and support. And when he is ready to go off the medication, then we can resume Christian Science treatment.

YOUNG: Now Michelle that sounds like some part of the treatment is withdrawn from someone if they choose medicine.

NANOUCHE: Well, just as you wouldn't engage two different physicians, for example, when the patient is really seeking another form of care. It's not so much a withdrawal of an aspect of it, it's that the practitioner is no longer assuming the full responsibility for healing that case. That is a billable relationship.

YOUNG: Well, what would you say to someone that you were hired to be practitioner for if they decided to take medical treatment?

NANOUCHE: Well, of course I would want them to know that they're loved. This isn't such a highly unusual thing. You have Christian Scientists who rely completely on spiritual means for healing, and you have others who for a variety of reasons have medical care. You know, it can range from it being a personal decision that they've made themselves to family members who are concerned for them who, you know, are encouraging them or even requiring them to seek medical care, these dear ones that are looking for healing.

YOUNG: Would you still consider someone a Christian Scientist if they said I'm sorry, I've got to - I'm going to go to the hospital and get medicine and care?

NANOUCHE: Of course, absolutely.

YOUNG: Is it possible, though, that a Christian Scientist, that they might not go to get the care that they desperately need because they feel so compelled to do what the church is calling them to do?

NANOUCHE: Christian Scientists make their own health care decisions. I think that it's unfortunate this suggestion that the church or the practitioners take on the role of dictating the health care decisions for the members.

YOUNG: What about Rita Swan's experience? She said that she had debilitating cysts and had to have them removed. She said she was ostracized by the church. She felt shunned.

NANOUCHE: I believe that's completely possible. There may be congregations who comport themselves in a not very Christian manner. But I would say that that is outside of the standard behavior.

YOUNG: Have you ever said to someone you should go? This isn't going to work?

NANOUCHE: I was working on a child's case where the child had what was later diagnosed as an infection in his spine. He was paralyzed. Within just I would say about 24 hours of praying, there wasn't movement. He didn't seem to be getting better. And so the parents made the wise decision to take that child immediately to the doctor.

And the doctor was willing to give a little bit more space and time for the prayer, and that child actually was healed at the doctor's office. And, you know, we're seeing more and more and more of that, of people relying on spiritual means, even within the medical faculties.

YOUNG: But Michelle, you just said something quite important. You said the people you were working with made the wise decision to take their child to see a doctor because the situation seemed so serious.

NANOUCHE: Well, it was because the situation seemed serious and because their state law mandated the duty to seek medical care in serious circumstances. This was their legal and moral duty. It was regulated by state law. It's always wise to obey the law.

YOUNG: Well, and some of these laws are in place because of the work of people like Rita Swan.

NANOUCHE: In general, the teachings of Christian Science emphasize obedience to the law.

YOUNG: Well, that brings us to the law regarding insurance. Why not get insurance coverage? Congressman Levin in the debate around the new bill pointed out that Christian Scientists can find policies that will pay for spiritual treatments, people like yourself. It's funny, another listener wrote to us and said that Mary Baker Eddy, church founder herself, said in 1901 if a vaccination is compulsory, let your children be vaccinated and know that the vaccine can't hurt them.

NANOUCHE: I was vaccinated as a child. I received - because it was compulsory. I received the polio vaccination because my parents were obedient to the laws that were in place at that time.

YOUNG: Well, this listener wrote: So just find a cheap plan and know by your prayers it will not be needed. In other words, it's compulsory; it's the law.

NANOUCHE: Mm-hmm. It may be the law now, but this amendment allows the space and the recognition for accommodating religious practice. Our government has always been willing to accommodate religious practice.

YOUNG: That's Michelle Nanouche. She's a Christian Science practitioner and teacher. Thanks very much.

NANOUCHE: Thank you.

YOUNG: And we will link you to our original reporting on the proposed amendment that would exempt people from health coverage based on religious beliefs. We'll have that at And while there we'd love to hear your opinion on all of this.


Meanwhile a couple of other stories we're following. On May 25, Ukrainians are set to vote for a new president. There are two main contenders, a pro-European oligarch and a former prime minister. But when asked about their preference, voters in the Russian-leaning east and south tend to answer none of the above.

Also as he runs for re-election, Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, has a lot going for him, including an economy that is improving. But his co-finance chair, who is a Latino businessman, recently quit, claiming the Scott campaign doesn't understand Hispanics.

And the U.S. might release notorious Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in order to keep peace talks going, but the idea is facing a backlash in the U.S. and abroad. Details on those stories coming up later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson are hitting the road. Our Tumblr brings you behind the scenes of our election coverage.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

February 11 13 Comments

Gravitational Waves Discovery Confirms Einstein’s Theory

Scientists detected the gravitational waves after a pair of unusual black holes collided.

February 11 6 Comments

Pope To Visit Juárez During Mexico Trip

The border city is recreating itself after years of bloodshed – something Pope Francis lived through in Argentina.

February 11 25 Comments

A Senator Makes The Case For Authorizing Use Of Force Against ISIS

It's been a year since the president asked Congress to authorize the offensive already underway. Sen. Jeff Flake is pushing for a vote.

February 10 Comment

A Look At Prisons Around The World, With A Spotlight On Our Own

Baz Dreisinger visited prisons in nine countries and wrote about her experiences in a new book, "Incarceration Nations."