Unorthodox Medical Beliefs and Child Custody

medical divorce attorney st louis mo

Parents sometimes disagree over medical care for their children. When does that level of disagreement reach the point where one parent should no longer participate in the medical decision making for the child?

A recent case from the Western District, Gammon v. Gammon, addresses this very point.

In Gammon, the trial court awarded both parties joint legal custody and joint physical custody of the minor child, with one exception – the trial court awarded husband sole legal custody with respect to medical decisions for the children. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court noted mother’s “unorthodox” medical beliefs. For example, mother rejected most of Western medicine. She refused to have the children vaccinated. She believed in “hands on” healing, or the “laying of hands,” where she would get into a meditative state and place her hands on the suffering person and through her thoughts and prayers heal the ailment. She used a variety of healing oils and believed that chiropractic adjustments could cure cardiovascular disease. Father, on the other hand, believed in traditional Western medicine. Mother argued she should at least have the right to mediate disagreements in medical care, but the trial court considered that option not viable as the parents had no common ground on medical treatment.

Mother appealed to the Western District. The appellate court affirmed the trial court, noting that joint custody only works when the parents have the ability to make decisions together, premised on a shared sense of vision about what is in the best interests of the children and their health. In this case, the parties had no common vision of medical care but instead views diametrically opposed to one another. Further, the trial court reasonably believed that the choices of mother did not advance the well-being of the minor children.

While this decision seems fairly straightforward, some parents may wonder if their individual beliefs stray from standard medical practice whether they will lose the ability to make medical decisions for their children. For instance, a small minority of people believe vaccines do not help children and lead to potential harm. While these views have been rejected by scientific testing, these views still persist. Or what about people who sincerely believe in alternative medicine? Will they, like the mother in Gammon, have no legal rights? The issue of where to draw the line appears to be one of degree. When a parent refuses to allow a child access to traditional Western medicine, that parent puts the child at risk in a manner some would consider abuse or neglect. If, on the other hand, we were considering other options after certain Western medicine had failed (in treating cancer for instance), that would be a different story.

Another issue sidestepped in Gammon concerns religious beliefs and the First Amendment. Some parents have religious views that reject certain forms of Western medicine, and the Supreme Court has held that parents have a right to raise their children in the religion of their choice. However, when these beliefs become a literal matter of life and death, courts have much more power to intervene in favor of treatment. But our courts give more deference than most people might realize to sincerely held religious beliefs.

If you have questions about unorthodox medical beliefs and custody, contact us – we can help.