Should health care cover spiritual medicine?
Science vs. religion in the pursuit of healing
The Washington Post had an article yesterday on efforts by the Church of Scientology to get Congress to include in health care reform a provision that would require insurers to reimburse patients for the cost of prayer practitioners. In the United States, health care is most often administered through scientific-based medicine – medication, surgery, etc. However, for much of human history, there has been a concept of faith healing – the idea that religious belief, prayer and rituals can evoke divine power to remedy disease and disability.
Like doctors, prayer practitioners claim to be able to heal the sick. So, the argument goes, insurance should cover the cost of prayer. So should it?
The purpose of insurance is to prevent bad luck from having a negative impact on our life circumstances. In the case of health insurance, it is to prevent illness or handicap from having such an effect. Unfortunately, only in some cases (preventative medicine) can we actually prevent the effects of bad medical luck, but in many cases we can significantly reduce the negative impact.
Of course medicine — either science- or prayer-based — is not a 100% successful. Sometimes it does not work. So how do we decide what to do? How does a cancer patient decide between a surgery to remove the cancer that has only a 10% chance of success and a medication that has a 90% chance, but only promises five more years of life? Legally (and morally) that choice is up to the patient (assuming the patient is of sound mind). When risk is involved, the bearer of the risk should ultimately make the decision.
Which brings us back to prayer. If a sick patient decides they would rather have prayer-based medicine, there is no clear reason why they should not be able to make such a choice. And since health insurance is designed prevent the negative effects of illness and injury, a process which is filled with uncertainty, there is no reason that health insurance should not cover a patient who chooses prayer healing over science-based medicine.
Interestingly, the main opposition to such a prayer healing provision is pediatricians and children’s health activists. According to these groups, it is unethical for parents to choose prayer for their children over science-based medicine that is scientifically proven to be more effective. They would argue that while adults should be able to choose whatever medicine they like, children are not sufficiently developed to make such a choice, and should not have their medical future determined by the beliefs of their parents when the scientific case for traditional medicine over prayer is so great. This aspect of the debate — health care for children — puts us squarely in the territory of parental rights, a topic we will address later on this blog. And it suggests that, leaving children aside for now, the case for health insurance to reimburse prayer healing is morally strong.
Photo by Flickr user tavallai used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.