ANNAPOLIS – Just as they are not forced to immunize their children, Maryland’s 1,000 Christian Science families say they should not be forced to have their children tested for lead poisoning.
“This is the best thing for the health of our children,” said Dale Burman of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Maryland. “We are independent-minded people. We’re not going to let other people tell us what to do.”
Burman said Christian Scientists are free to go to physicians if they wish, but should not be compelled to do so by the state.
“We don’t want to harm our children,” he said, before testifying for a bill that would create a religious exemption to the law that requires lead screening of children in day care.
Christian Scientists have won such exemptions in six other states, including Delaware.
But opponents said those laws hurt children.
Dr. Crossan O’Donovan, a Dundalk pediatrician, argued that once the symptoms of lead poisoning appear, it is often too late to prevent permanent damage to a child. Elevated levels of lead in a child’s bloodstream can lead to mental retardation and other problems.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1.2 million Maryland homes have lead-based paint.
“The effect of lead is irreversible,” said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
But Christian Scientists say that argument misses the point behind their health-care philosophy.
“The Christian Science healing method does not require early detection,” said Burman.
He said believers rely on regular prayer for all facets of their life. But when prayer did not heal the throat infection of Burman’s own son, now 20, the boy underwent surgery. None of Burman’s three other children was ever taken to a doctor.
Norton argued that lead screening can prevent more serious problems.
“Screening doesn’t conflict with religion,” she said, because it begins with a questionnaire to determine risk, not with a mandatory blood test.
She also said that an exemption could put parents at risk of prosecution, if their child develops complications from lead exposure. Christian Scientists have been prosecuted in other states for failing to get medical attention for their children.
But Burman said Christian Scientists believe that prayer is all the medical attention they need. They should not be prosecuted any more than a parent who uses traditional medicine, he said.
“How many parents who took their kids to doctors, and the kids died, are prosecuted?” he asked.
The law requiring that children be tested for lead poisoning was passed just last year, after four consecutive years of trying. The bill proposing a religious exemption to that law is before the House Environmental Matters Committee.