From the Watertown Daily Times:

CANTON — An Amish couple is waiting to find out if child neglect charges against them will be dropped following a closed-door conference Thursday in Family Court.

The couple, Annie L. and Levi M. Shetler, were charged last year after they refused open-heart surgery for their newborn daughter, Sarah, because they said the operation goes against the tenets of their religion.

They released the baby for surgery after being ordered to do so by Family Court Judge Cecily L. Morris in April.

“Among our people, we don’t usually go as far as doing open-heart surgery,” the 47-year-old mother said Thursday. “That’s the way we usually see it. I guess we’ll all die anyway, someday.”

The surgery, performed in May, required temporarily stopping the baby’s heart, which is an action only God should have the power to decide, Mrs. Shelter said.

I spoke with an expert knowledgeable about this case last week at the Amish conference.  The heart-stoppage aspect is the sticking point with the Amish in this situation, as it was in a similar case occurring about five years ago.

Gideon and Barbara Hershberger (of the same area in New York as the Shetlers) faced a similar situation in 2008 when a judge ruled that surgery be performed on their young son.  Similar to this case, the boy was expected to die without the surgery.

In the Hershberger case, the judge did not require the parents to sign a consent form, nor did they face criminal charges.

When do Amish refuse medical care?

People are often curious about how Amish approach medical care.  It’s a complicated question, especially when you consider the cornucopia of treatments and approaches seen across Amish society.

I usually try to point out that they are not like certain other groups which might refuse blood transfusions or modern procedures on a religious basis, which is often what people are asking about.

Some may be reluctant to undergo procedures which may be seen to unnecessarily extend life, however.  From the new book The Amish:

Some households see a doctor only in emergencies; others go regularly to a family physician.  Certain families would not consider open-heart surgery for a loved one, but others, sometimes even in the same Gmay, would welcome it.

Choices are molded by tradition, extended family, ordained leaders, and informal conversations in the church-community.  When his cardiologist advised seventy-nine-year-old Yonie Esh to have his heart valve replaced, his first thought was, “No way.  At my age what’s the use?” But then his children “sort of talked me into it,” he said, and after reading the Bible, he decided to “give myself up to the surgery.”(3) Unlike Esh, a seventy-five-year-old bishop with heart disease in a very traditional group refused any medicine or surgical interventions although doctors repeatedly told him he would die without them–and he did (p. 337).

This heart-stoppage surgery is one of the few instances I’ve ever heard of (the only?) where a group of Amish categorically object on a religious basis to a medical procedure.  The Shetlers are members of a highly traditional Swartzentruber Amish community.

We’ve seen and had many discussions over issues centering around Amish religious objections on things such as the SMV triangle or smoke detectors.

Many of those issues have involved the health and safety of Amish adults and children.  But none has been so immediately dramatic as this life-and-death situation.

The surgery has been done; now the issue is whether child neglect charges will be dropped.  “We should have the right to have our religion,” said Annie Shetler’s sister-in-law.

What do you think?


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