Matthew Swan, age 16 months, died of spinal meningitis in 1977 in Detroit, Michigan. His parents, Doug and Rita Swan, both lifelong Christian Scientists, retained Christian Science practitioners for spiritual “treatments.”
Christian Science contends that illness is an illusion caused by faulty beliefs, and that prayer heals by replacing bad thoughts with good ones. Christian Science practitioners work by trying to argue the sick thoughts out of the person’s mind. In Matthew’s case, the practitioners repeatedly said they were healing him and interpreted his symptoms as evidence of healing. For example, one practitioner who observed the baby’s convulsions said he might be “gritting his teeth” because he was “planning some great achievement.” The practitioners demanded more faith and gratitude from the Swans. They complained that the Swans’ fears and other sins were obstructing their treatment.
After nearly two weeks of serious illness, a practitioner said Matthew might have a broken bone and that Christian Scientists are allowed to go to doctors for setting of broken bones. The Swans took Matthew to a hospital, where the disease was diagnosed as Hemophilus influenza meningitis. He lived for a week in intensive care. The Christian Science practitioners would not pray for him while he had medical care.
The Swans left the Christian Science Church shortly after their son’s death and later founded Children’s Health Care Is A Legal Duty (CHILD), an organization opposed to medical neglect and other types of child abuse rationalized on religious grounds. So far, CHILD has collected 140 cases of children who died as a result of religion-based medical neglect.
During an appearance on the “Donahue” show, the Swans were asked why Matthew’s illness had not been reported to state health authorities as required by law in Michigan. They replied that no one had made the diagnosis. Devout believers, they did not want to face possible abandonment by the church if they sought a medical opinion.
The Christian Science Church continues to misinform its members and endanger their children by claiming it can heal spinal meningitis. The Swans believes that the Church’s alleged “healings” are of viral meningitis, which may well be symptomless and, in any event, usually causes no permanent injury with or without treatment. By contrast, bacterial forms of meningitis — such as the one that killed Matthew Swan — are nearly 100% fatal without antibiotic treatment and 95% curable with antibiotics.