Wednesday, opening arguments began in the trial of an Oregon couple accused of manslaughter in the death of their infant son. Dale and Shannon Hickman are accused of refusing to seek life saving medical attention for their son, choosing prayer and spiritual practice over modern medicine, a choice resulting in the death of their child.
The Hickman’s are members of the notorious Followers of Christ, a faith-healing church located in Oregon City, Oregon. The church preaches faith-healing and rejects modern medicine in favor of prayer and other spiritual practices such as anointing the sick with oil.
The Hickman’s are the fourth couple from the church to be prosecuted in the last two years for failing to seek medical attention for a child. All but one parent was found guilty and sent to prison.
Church members have a lengthy history of unnecessary childhood deaths resulting from a lack of medical care. The state medical examiner’s office has estimated that in the past 30 years, more than 20 children of church members have died of preventable or curable conditions.
David Hickman, the couple’s infant son, died in 2009 from a bacterial infection in his lungs. Born two months premature, weighing only 3 pounds and 5 ounces, David only lived for an agonizing nine hours. David, slowly succumbing to the infection in the Hickman’s home, was surrounded by female church members who are considered midwives, although there is no evidence these unlicensed, supposed “midwives,” have any medical education.
The legal issues involved in the prosecution revolve around issues of religious freedom, parental rights and the government’s responsibility to protect children. The defense is expected to argue that the infant’s death was an unforeseeable tragedy and that the Hickman’s are the victims of religious persecution.
The Oregonian explains:
The jury must consider a couple of key questions: Did the Hickmans fail to recognize that David faced a substantial and unjustifiable risk that could result in serious harm or death? And did they respond to that risk as a reasonable person would? Simply put, did the Hickmans adhere to community standards of care for a medically fragile newborn?
As in all such cases, community reaction has been one of outrage, disgust, and sadness. Oregonians are angry that a stream needlessly dead and maimed children continue to be associated with the Followers of Christ church.
Fellow Christians are quick to distance themselves from the Followers of Christ church and the Hickmans, claiming that they are not true or authentic representatives of Christianity.
Many others are simply saddened and dismayed that belief in religious superstition robbed young David of a life.
Finally, many observers note that David’s mother, Shannon Hickman, is seen in photographs wearing eye glasses, presumably prescribed for her by a doctor. Yet Shannon refused to seek medical treatment that would have saved her son’s life. The apparent contradiction, and hypocrisy, leaves many angry and confused.
The trial is expected to last five weeks, with a verdict expected in late October.