Children are dying in an increasing number of ingenious ways, and the only thing more disturbing than this trend is the even more ingenious way in which society is rationalizing and legally justifying their deaths.

Two-year-old Robyn Twitchell died at his parents’ home in Massachusetts on April 8, 1986, after suffering for five days with constipation caused by a birth defect. The parents are currently on trial for manslaughter because they denied their son all medical treatment and attempted to cure him solely with prayer, in accordance with their Christian Science faith. Lawyers for the Twitchells, however, claim that the trial is nothing less than a case of religious persecution, for a 1971 Massachusetts child abuse and neglect law recognizes spiritual healing as a legitimate alternative to medical treatment. Medical testimony presented by the prosecution revealed not only that Robyn’s ailment could have been detected by an X-ray and corrected by surgery, but that he could also have been resuscitated up to thirty minutes after he fell into cardiac arrest. According to the prosecution, Robyn had been dead for at least thirty minutes and possibly for as long as several hours by the time he was brought to Boston’s Carney Hospital.

A similar scene is being played out in Hamilton County, Indiana, where last April 15 six-month-old Sean Woodrum died of untreated bronchial pneumonia. His parents are members of a religious sect called Faith Assembly, which shuns any use of medicine and requires physical healing by prayer alone. As of this writing, the parents are awaiting trial on charges of reckless homicide. The parents’ defense? Freedom of religion.

Such cases are not uncommon. In fact, the organization CHILD—Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty—has identified 140 cases of religiously based medical neglect in which children died. Started in 1983 by ex- Christian Scientist Rita Swan, whose own 16-month-old son died in 1977 when she and her husband and Christian Science practitioners attempted to cure his meningitis solely with prayer, the organization has been at the forefront of the movement to repeal the state immunity laws that condone medical neglect in the name of freedom of religion. (Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have laws that shield medical neglect cases from child abuse charges and six states have exemptions allowing for “nonmedical remedial treatment.” Only one state, South Dakota, has repealed all such exemptions and immunity laws.) Her organization’s philosophy is simple: that the First Amendment is not without its limits and responsibilities, that freedom of religion does not allow individuals to deprive their children of necessary medical care. (More information about this organization can be obtained by writing CHILD, Inc., P.O. Box 2604, Sioux City, Iowa, 51106.)

Freedom of religion, however, is but one of many specious arguments currentiy in vogue to explain and justify the death of children. The successful insanity defense of 18-year-old Claire Hilary Moritt of Hollywood is as offensive in its absurdity as it is gruesome in its detail. A college student at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, Ms. Moritt was charged with first-degree murder in October 1989 for drowning in a dormitory bathroom the six-pound, nine-ounce boy she had just given birth to moments before. Roommates found the dead newborn stuffed headfirst in a toilet. Although it is clear that Ms. Moritt committed the act, she was acquitted of all charges last April. Her successful defense? A “dissociative disorder” had caused her to forget that she was pregnant and that she had given birth and to kill the baby during a bout of temporary insanity. Ms. Moritt’s sanity miraculously reappeared with news of the acquittal. She told the press that she planned to continue her college education so that she could “study law and be able to help other people”—other wrongly accused “victims,” no doubt.

The deaths of these children expose many paradoxes. Just as we forbid as insensitive the public display of Nativity scenes while funding a crucifix submerged in urine, we encourage social service agencies to intervene in families that spank their children while deeming the life of a newborn to be no more important than that of the unborn. Fathers are allowed no say in abortion decisions, but they are given a tax break for making decisions that lead to the death of their children (federal tax law considers faith healing a deductible medical expense). And with many of the children who are dying from medical neglect dying amid great suffering and pain (Robyn Twitchell was reportedly vomiting, dehydrated, and in a near comatose state before he died), we can only wonder about the meaning and worth of our laws against cruel and unusual punishment.

In other words, responsibility for the deaths of these children should of course be laid at their parents’ door, but some of the blame must also fall on the kinder and gentler and more sensitive society we have fashioned and fussed over for decades—one that measures the virtue of its culture by the degree to which rights and newfangled interpretations of rights can be furthered at the expense of such old-fashioned principles as moral responsibility and individual accountability. Freedom of religion once meant the right to worship in public, until the government began telling us where and how we can worship. Now it means the right to kill children. Perhaps it’s time to give the continent back to the Aztecs.