Don’t legitimize the illegitimate

One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was about the farce that is Christian Science. Their religion — or, their religious addition to mainstream Christianity — consists of denying all the evidence about medicine and prayer, and believing that faith in Jesus is enough to give you a long and healthy life. Unsurprisingly, the observant ones and/or their children often die of easily treatable medical conditions.

That old post was about the Christian Science leadership declaring that maybe science-based medicine was acceptable after all, and recommending that in certain circumstances it would be worthwhile for church members to supplement their prayer with treatment from an actual medical professional. How Christian Science continued to exist after this announcement, I’m really not sure. But that’s faith for you.

Anyhow, there was an article at Marginal Revolution a little while back that was prompted by the fact that Christian Scientists (and others who object to medicine on religious grounds) can get Medicare to cover their stays at “religious nonmedical health care institutions.” That’s right — they can bill the government, and spend your tax dollars, for a lack of medical treatment. The MR piece is primarily focused on the implications this sort of policy has on possibilities for trimming and/or privatizing Medicare, but I think a slightly longer WTF?! moment before progressing to that discussion would have been merited.

Of course, any individual has the right not to avail themselves of particular government-provided services. You don’t have to send your children to public school. You don’t have to apply for food stamps, and you don’t have to call the fire department when your house is on fire. But in the US, we rely on the democratic process to decide what programs our government will and won’t provide. We’ve collectively decided that we want to have fire departments and we want to have public schools, because those institutions make our society better overall. In order to implement these democratic decisions fairly, we share the burden of paying for them by each chipping in through our taxes. Yes, there may be some programs that I don’t think we should have approved or that I will never personally use, but some of my tax money goes toward them anyway. If everyone could opt out of paying taxes into any program they didn’t feel like paying for, our government couldn’t function (even to the limited degree it currently does).

My point is that I don’t have any problem with Christian Scientists eligible for Medicare choosing not to seek medical treatment. It’s their prerogative to make that decision for themselves (although I’m confused as to why, in light of that announcement last year, they aren’t perfectly willing to be treated by doctors). But I don’t see why they should be able to get Medicare to pay for Christian Science. The democratic decision to implement Medicare was based on the desire to ensure that certain citizens had the medical treatment they needed to get and stay healthy. If you’d rather pray than get healthy, fine — that money can be spent on improving the health of people who actually want to do so. It doesn’t make sense to funnel Medicare dollars into not giving people medical treatment.

Here’s an analogy I think drives this point home. Let’s say you don’t believe in evolution because your religious beliefs deny it, and you don’t want your children to learn about it. You have every right and ability to homeschool your children rather than sending them to public schools where they might receive scientifically accurate biology lessons. But you don’t have the right to demand that a portion of your property taxes, instead of being used to fund the local public school system, be allocated to your church to pay for Sunday school classes on creationism. That would be absurd. Your municipality voted to allocate some property tax revenue to its public school system, and you can either advocate for changes to the funding system or to the public school curriculum, or you can move somewhere else. You don’t get to demand a reallocation of your portion of taxes regarding any program you don’t personally want to take part in.

It’s mindboggling to me that there is a special exception in the law to use health care money specifically for treatment that is by definition not going to improve anyone’s health. I suppose it’s good that they recently rewrote it so as to cover all religions, as opposed to giving unique privileges to Christian Science … but it still amounts to public funding of religious observance, and it lends legitimacy to an obviously illegitimate philosophy on human health.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m a bit confused now. I remember the controversy over a provision that was proposed for the healthcare-reform bill that would effectively have paid Christian Science practitioners for praying. I believe that proposal was ultimately dropped from the final version of the bill. But in spite of that, Christian Scientists have been able to get paid for praying all along?

  2. Good point, Ebonmuse. I’m a little confused now myself. The document linked in the MR post is a booklet provided by a particular care facility, so it seems this is a policy they work with regularly. But they are careful to say that government funds can’t technically pay for religious things. E.g.,

    If you are admitted to a hospital or a religious nonmedical health care institution, such as Arden Wood, Part A helps pay for the following:
    • Semi-private room and meals
    • Regular nursing services (this does not include metaphysical support, such as reading religious literature to patients)
    • Nursing supplies

    I’m not sure how this actually manifests itself in the billing procedure, or what “nursing services” and “nursing supplies” means when you don’t believe in medical treatment. Regardless, money is fungible, and if Medicare covers a meaningful portion of costs at this facility it is not doing its job. Here are the facility’s requirements for being a patient there:

    For admission to our Christian Science nursing services program, we require that:
    • The patient is expectantly and radically relying on Christian Science for healing.
    • The patient is working with a Journal-listed practitioner.
    • The patient has designated someone as his or her home and care guarantor.*
    • The patient is free from the use of medication.

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