Another child killed by parents’ faith

This happened in July, so it’s a bit old, but I keep track of these things and had missed the incident described in the article below (from The Oregonian). It’s just one more instance in a long string of children killed because of their parents’ beliefs—beliefs that the children could not possibly have understood or rationally embraced. (Click on screenshot.)

The parents, Sarah and Travis Mitchell, are members of a notorious religious sect, the Followers of Christ, that embraces faith healing instead of Western medicine. Sarah gave birth to twins in 2017, but one of them was in bad shape, and rather than seek medical attention, the parents prayed. That baby died. Help was called for the other baby, who was also having difficulties, after the parents called law enforcement and were “persuaded” to seek medical attention. As the paper reports:

The couple’s newborn, Ginnifer, died March 5, 2017, from complications of premature birth. Her lungs appeared to be “airless” and she suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome, the state medical examiner found.

The Mitchells’ baby died in the master bedroom at the Oregon City home of Sarah Mitchell’s parents. It was the same place where Sarah Mitchell’s older sister Shannon Hickman delivered a premature baby boy who died eight hours after birth in September 2009.

. . . The first of the twins, Evylen, was born in a breech position — bottom first, a significant potential complication — at 2:30 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 8 ounces, nearly two months premature. Twenty-three minutes later, Ginnifer was born at 2:53 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 6 ounces.

Breathing problems persisted for both newborns but no one called 911 or took the girls to a hospital.

At 4:36 p.m., a relative texted others, asking, “R u guys hearing that the second baby is dark and they r wanting prayers?”  according to investigators.

Over four hours, Ginnifer fought for her life, trying to take oxygen into her underdeveloped lungs. At 6:05 pm., Travis Mitchell “laid on hands” and the family took turns praying for healing as the baby continued labored breathing and changed colors.

Ginnifer died at 7 p.m. that day. “I knew she was dead when she didn’t cry out anymore,” her father said, according to court documents.

Sarah’s sister, as noted above, also delivered a stricken baby that wasn’t saved after prayer, but could have been with evidence-based medicine. Shannon Hickman and her husband were convicted of murder and sent to prison for manslaughter, each getting a six-year term. That should have been a lesson for Sarah.

In this case, Sarah and Travis Mitchell were charged with murder but accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide and first-degree criminal mistreatment. They also signed a statement, to be posted in the church, saying that they should have sought medical treatment.

The jail sentences seem a bit light to me, not on the grounds of retribution—which I don’t believe in—but on the grounds of deterrence. Members of this church have repeatedly killed their children by praying instead of seeking medical attention, and it’s time that it stops. The only way to do that, I think, is to give stiff sentences and permanently remove the children from the home, or from the homes of relatives who embrace the same faith in prayer.

So we have yet another death that wouldn’t have occurred without religion, another child who won’t grow up. Those who like religion in general will say that this must be balanced against all the lives saved by religion, but a religion that lets its sick children die by prayer—children too young to decide for themselves—cannot be allowed to practice its faith. Yes, they can have their church services and the like, but it should be made very clear that the decision to get medical care is Caesar’s, not God’s.

And that lesson needs to be learned by the far more numerous Christian Scientists (many of whom still see doctors on the sly) and by Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose children regularly die because their religion rejects blood transfusions. Here’s a JW pamphlet from 1994 celebrating those dead children. Every child shown on the cover died after rejecting a transfusion. This is one of the most vivid examples of religious indoctrination (and harm) that I know of:


  1. eric
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    The only way to do that, I think, is to give stiff sentences and permanently remove the children from the home

    I’m okay with a 6 year jail sentence; as a parent I think permanently losing custody of your child is the stiff sentence.

    The fact that she had a sister do this too should be a reminder to all of us that, before modern medicine, 1 out of every 3 children died before reaching adulthood. Granted, mostly from disease not complications arising from birth. However that rate was still probably an order of magnitude or more higher than the current 6 per 1,000 live births.

  2. Posted September 27, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I hate it when people believe that science is antithetical to religion. I’ll never understand them. Why do they think modern medicine so evil? Those parents belong in prison.

    • Posted September 27, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s not like praying and modern medical care are mutually exclusive.

      • eric
        Posted September 27, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Blasphemy! What’s next – you’re going to tell us that it’s okay to put lightning rods up to protect our church steeples?

        • Posted September 28, 2018 at 4:12 am | Permalink

          Never mind lightning rods, if you have complete faith in God, why bother with the roof?

          The above is plagiarised from somebody – Richard Dawkins possibly.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Well, what are you saying? That science and religion are compatible? Our host wrote a whole book about that. They are not.
      That being said, I’d say that religion should not preclude one from profiting of the advances that science has made. And one should not needlessly sacrifice children on that altar.

      • Posted September 27, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        I’d say they absolutely are compatible mainly because when it comes to religion many people are not binary. It depends on the degree to which you put more faith in. I’d say most people can be placed on something akin to a religious spectrum. I’m finishing up a STEM degree and I’m religious. I don’t believe the earth is 3000 years old but I believe there is a God and a heaven. Just saying, you don’t have to choose one or the other lol

        • ploubere
          Posted September 27, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          You can technically both pray and use modern medicine, but if prayer does heal why go to the hospital, and if it doesn’t, what’s the point in praying? So in that sense they are incompatible.

          • Posted September 27, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            A lot of times it’s for hope. A lot of prayer comes in times of powerlessness. And if the action of praying gives you hope then it fulfills it’s purpose and more power to ya. Medicine can do the same thing (think like the placebo effect or an opinion from a professional) a lot of people who are sick can use both and I think it’s great to have different means to the same problem. I wouldn’t say they counteract each other

            • Simon Hayward
              Posted September 27, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

              If they want to pray after taking the kid to see an appropriate medical professional, fine. That’s not the same as the “murder by neglect” scenario here.

              The data from many studies show that prayer may help the person doing the praying (in the same way that meditation might be useful – consistent with your comment), but has no effect on the person being prayed for, unless they know that someone is praying for them, in which case (at least in the STEP study – which is probably the best powered and controlled) they do worse. That negative outcome would not apply here as the babies would be too young to understand.

              Benson et al American Heart J. 151, 934-42 (2006)

              Also Editorial on the failure of the IRB to recognize the potentially harmful effects of prayer in this trial:

              Krucoff et al Am. Heart J. 151, 762-64 (2006)

              • Posted September 27, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                I never said that praying for someone makes them better. I was saying that for some people praying can give them hope. If you read my original comment I think that the parents belong in prison for not taking their child to the hospital.

                I really don’t understand what’s going on, all I said was that religion and science aren’t antithetical and a few comments later I’m being cited sources saying that praying for someone doesn’t help them heal. Lol like this is ridiculous I never took the position I’m being accused of and I’m not stupid

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 27, 2018 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                Jacob, if you’re new around here you may have walked into an ongoing debate you’re unaware of the background of. This is an essentially atheist site and one frequent topic of discussion is whether science and religion are ‘compatible’. This is often in the sense that, fundamentally, science offers no evidence for God. Also, evolution-vs-creationism often crops up in which religion and science are directly opposed.

                I think your field of argument is different, on whether religious should reject the products of science and technology in favour of prayer, or use both. And whether prayer can help those who believe in it. (I’m an atheist but I wouldn’t disagree with those points).

                Just don’t be surprised if the thread strays from your point to the other one.


              • Posted September 28, 2018 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

                Thanks for the heads up man. I think this is definitely what’s happening, I honestly just liked the article and posted my thoughts. I was so confused when I got so many responses haha. I didn’t plan on random people trying to find something to argue with what I said at every turn lol I did get the sense that it was part of something bigger so I stopped engaging. But yeah, lesson learned- I’ll keep my views to myself haha

              • darrelle
                Posted September 28, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink


                I don’t think Simon was attributing that position to you he was simply being thorough in describing what formal studies have shown about the efficacy of prayer. Notice that Simon clearly stated that many studies are “consistent with your comment.”

                And regarding citing of sources, it’s simply something that is normal, encouraged and sometimes even expected in certain circumstances here at this site. Many of the commenters here work or have worked in the sciences or related fields. I am pretty sure the intent was either to be courteous or it was simply reflex. Please don’t be offended!

              • Posted September 28, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, I was just surprised, I wasn’t expecting my comment to spark a debate. Maybe I was a little irked the day I commented but not anymore. I didn’t realize how Atheist this site was or how much debate is in the culture. It was ignorance on my part, knowing what I do now I can see how my original comment would spark some debate haha

            • Nicolaas Stempels
              Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:34 am | Permalink

              Slightly tangential, since praying yourself is a different thing -which I agree may help people to cope with the difficulties of life, but being prayed for may have a negative effect.
              I recall having read about a study where heart surgery patients were randomly assigned to 3 groups: one was not prayed for, the second was prayed for but not told about it, while the third group was prayed for and told so.
              The first two groups did not differ in their outcomes, while the third group did worse. I guess a kind of negative placebo effect? (I mean, if I were told by my doctor before my heart surgery that a prayer group was praying for me, I’d really start to worry about my prospects…:) )

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:23 am | Permalink

          Talking about a spectrum, Richard Dawkins proposed a scale of (IIRC) 1 to 7, with 1 an absolute belief in the existence of a god as described in the scripture in question, and 7 a certainty that there is no God(s). He placed himself at 6.9, where would you place yourself?

          • Posted September 28, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

            I’d say I’m a 5. I’m religious because it makes me happy to think that there is some reason for being. It’s similar to the way AA groups acknowledge a higher power. It’s a way of framing my situation in a way that works for me. I am by no means churchgoing or bible quoting. And I think there are a lot of religious people out there that would place themselves similarly. Definitely not the couple in the article haha

    • Posted September 27, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      From the above, I take it you are aware that for medical issues prayer can have an invigorating effect in times of heavy crisis, and other benefits that are similar to placebo. But that seems to be the extent of it.

      • Posted September 27, 2018 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        Yep I am aware. I’m not sure how you read my comment, but I am by no means defending prayer in place of medicine. The only reason I jump to the advantages of prayer is because I don’t believe in absolutes. If someone says prayer doesn’t heal, that’s false because it ignores mental and physical benefits that some people enjoy. Doesn’t mean it works for everybody, and certainly doesn’t mean it will help a child when it needs medical attention.

        • Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

          It doesn’t follow from this that *prayer* is the answer either – it may be that quiet time, meditation, etc. would also work.

          • Posted September 28, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

            I think that people can do whatever they want to reach a positive outlook whether that be prayer, placebo pills, more sleep, taking up a hobby, etc and I think that it can be helpful mentally and somewhat physically. I’m not making an argument for prayer, I honestly am just responding to problems people were finding with my comments. I didn’t realize an ongoing argument in this community is essentially what my original comment was lol. Now I see how my beliefs are best not to be expressed here, especially if I’m not looking for a debate haha

            • tomh
              Posted September 28, 2018 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

              “Now I see how my beliefs are best not to be expressed here, especially if I’m not looking for a debate”

              Nothing wrong with expressing your beliefs, as long as you’re prepared to justify them. If you just want to proclaim them for all to admire, there’s not much to debate.

  3. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    This isn’t Christian Science, but the latter is “distinguished” by quickly producing reactions in two prominent authors to pen tomes against them.

    Novelist Willa Cather (who although unreligious was strongly attracted to Catholicism), published “The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science” (1909). Reportedly, practitioners of CS all over America tried to buy up all copies hoping to thus suppress the work.

    LIkewise, Mark Twain published in 1907 an anthology of essays on the subject “Christian Science”. (The title essay was originally published in “Cosmopolitan” magazine.)

    Both Cather and Twain had a very dim personal view of Mary Baker Eddy.Twain called her “sordid, penurious, famishing for everything she sees—money, power, glory—vain, untruthful, jealous, despotic, arrogant, insolent, pitiless where thinkers and hypnotists are concerned, illiterate, shallow, incapable of reasoning outside of commercial lines, immeasurably selfish.”
    Wikipedia reports that Cather portrays Eddy as “greedy, uneducated and deceitful, someone who regularly revised her life story and was interested only in making money.” In short, a charlatan exploiting the fears of the masses.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Sounds familiar.

    • Diane G
      Posted September 28, 2018 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      Rather like Joseph Smith, then…

      • Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Or Hubbard – all very American religious leaders. 😉

        • Diane G
          Posted September 29, 2018 at 1:05 am | Permalink

          Jeez, yeah, him too.

          Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; esp. that of all the dolts who fall for them.

          • Posted October 1, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

            There are some people who think that the 1st Amendment is precisely what proliferates religions in the US. I think that’s oversimple, but no doubt it is part of it.

            I somewhere have a 1970 “world facts book” or the like my father gave me that he bought back then – it says there are ~25000 denominations of Christianity and ~22000 were founded in the US, or something like that.

            Religious freedom indeed!

  4. Gareth Price
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    A few months back, I read a book about this group. Every time a child died (or was crippled by a treatable condition), their defense was that they thought the child simply had a bad cold; she was running around, playing, until she suddenly took a turn for the worse and was dead before anyone could do anything. It was utterly implausible.

    I was struck by the fact that the parents were willing to let their children die for their own faith but tried desperately to avoid the consequences for themselves.

  5. busterggi
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    If god needs another angel so much why does he allow babies to be born at all?

    • Zetopan
      Posted October 1, 2018 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      “If god needs another angel so much why does he allow babies to be born at all?”

      Actually, the spontaneous abortion rate runs from about 30% to over 40%. In the bible gawd even commands the killing of post birth children. And of course any children who do not believe in Jesus are destined to eternal torture in hell when they die. That gawd does not appear to like children very much at all.
      Relevant bible verses left unreferenced since there are so many of them.

  6. darrelle
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Any similar case as this is monstrous but this one is especially monstrous to me because of personal experience. My wife and I have twins, born exactly 2 months premature, both just over 3 lbs and both needing medical intervention to breath. I find it hard to imagine what these parents did. Life is so cheap to them that for that reason alone they are a danger to society.

    This incident is actually much worse than just the breathing issue. At 2 months premature the lungs aren’t the only things that aren’t fully developed yet. Without long term, potentially months, of care, testing and observation 2 month premature infants are at very high risk of a very long list of conditions. Even if both of these infants had survived birth they would have almost surly suffered from one or more serious conditions resulting in anything from needless suffering, permanent disability or death.

    Our twins were in the NICU for weeks and endured endless tests for the very long list of issues typical of such premature infants. Ranging from bleeding brains to detached retinas.

    For one example of the dangers of lack of development, many times during their NICU stay my wife or I would be holding one of the twins only to have a nurse walk up to us and pleasantly ask if they could take the baby for a moment. They would then do something like briskly rub the babies back for a moment while carefully observing them and the multiple read-outs of the several machines they were attached to.

    “What’s going on?”
    “Oh nothing, the baby just stopped breathing, that’s all.”


    The first nights at home were nerve wracking. I’d sit on the edge of a chair leaning against the two cribs, arranged in an ‘L’ around me, watching them sleep and constantly checking to see that they were breathing.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Wow. That’s a heart wrenching situation. Scary. Your reactions were what you’d probably call normal. The Christian couple, you’d probably call extremely abnormal. Thanks religion 8-(

    • Linda Calhoun
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      That is a wrenching experience.

      How long was it before you were able to relax and enjoy them?


      • darrelle
        Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        I think my mind has blocked much of my memories of the first months to protect my sanity. 🙂

        Kidding aside, it was the toughest time of our lives. As luck would have it the results of every single one of those dozens (hundreds?) of tests turned out to be negative and our twins didn’t / don’t have any issues from there prematurity. Except for acid reflux. Despite medications to manage it they screamed bloody murder for most of their conscious moments for months. Trying to get enough food in them, get their medicine down, comfort them and get them back to sleep took everything we both had for months.

        I would take one, my wife the other because their schedules were not synchronized. When your charge woke up screaming, you’d get up and pick them up, change them, give them their medicine, attempt to feed them a certain amount and then work to comfort them and get them back to sleep. All that would take 45 minutes to an hour. Once you got them to sleep they might sleep from 30 minutes to an hour then start all over, 24 – 7.

        The only sleep you’d get is when your twin slept. Rules be damned, I slept with my twin. They both took comfort in doing so and slept noticeably better. I’d lie down on my back and place the twin face down over my torso with their legs off to my left side and with my left arm gently against their legs so they were somewhat constrained.

        That routine went on for 4 months before it started to improve. It was thoroughly exhausting both physically and emotionally. There were of course many moments of enjoyment even during that time. But it wasn’t until perhaps 6 to 8 months that we were really able to relax from the tensions that resulted from their prematurity.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      Note that the detached retinas in these prematures (ROP: retinopathy of prematurity) are iatrogenic, it is due to too great amounts of O2 given to these babies. With a more moderate, more subtle Oxygen regime, or with c-pap, much of it can be prevented.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Thank you Nicolaas, I didn’t know that. Was the cause known 14 years ago? Though we tried to learn as much about all the issues as we could I don’t recall having heard that.

        As luck would have it the first thing my wife’s doctor did when she was admitted with premature contractions was to prescribe some sort of steroid treatment intended to promote lung development (sounds like you probably know all about that). It was only about 36 hours later that the twins were born. Is that enough time for the steroid treatment to have had any significant effect?

        I don’t know but in any case, the twins were on c-pap for only a brief time. One for about 12 hours and the other about 24 hours. But for at least 2 or 3 weeks they would occasionally “forget” to breath.

  7. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    This is monstrous indeed. I have difficulty to believe they really thought that prayers were as good as evidence based medicine.
    If you want to be very callous one could say: natural selection at work: those that have a propensity to believe religious crap will have higher mortality among their offspring.
    No, I do not believe that, and I think the story is tragic and unconscionable from the parents and their religious demagogic pasters.

  8. JezGrove
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    If only these misguided fools could spend eternity suffering for their behaviour…

    • JezGrove
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      But of course that’s for everyone else.

  9. BJ
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank Jesus we prosecute these people as the murderers they are.

    We should do the same for people who don’t vaccinate their kids and then have them die from diseases that are part of the normal vaccination routine.

    • tomh
      Posted September 27, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      “Thank Jesus we prosecute these people as the murderers they are.”

      Only 16 states have no religious exemptions for parents who refuse medical treatments for their children, which means parents can be prosecuted in those states. The rest all allow religious exemptions to some degree, meaning parents can escape consequences for what would otherwise be crimes, up to and including manslaughter charges. That’s not counting the 47 states that allow religious exemptions from vaccinations for children.

  10. Posted September 27, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Darrelle: All children should be loved and cared for by people like you and your wife.
    What a contrast!

    • darrelle
      Posted September 28, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Thank you Rowena Kitchen. We had no clue what we were doing! I couldn’t believe it when they told us we could take them home. Huh? Wait! What do I do?!?!?!? I’m not ready! 🙂

      • Diane G
        Posted September 28, 2018 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

        Having felt that way about my first-born, who was full-term and “passed” his Apgar with flying colors, I can only imagine how exponentially worse it would be to be sent home with not just one but two such fragile infants! You and your wife obviously came through with flying colors. 🙂

  11. Diane G
    Posted September 28, 2018 at 3:27 am | Permalink


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