The Texas Family Code states explicitly that parents have a duty to provide medical care to their child.
“I have some grievous news. The Lord took her.”
– Daniel Pursley
WELLS, Texas — When I first wrote about the May 2012 death in Wells, Texas, of the three-day-old baby Faith Shalom Pursley (The Rag Blog, August 11, 2014), two related and unanswered questions kept occurring to me: (1) Why would people who usually accept medical care fail to provide medical attention to their new-born baby? and (2) What made Daniel Pursley, who had no training in birthing, want to deliver his own child without medical or even midwife assistance? Since then, thanks to information from several sources, I may have an answer to those questions.
Four books and publications are connected to the death of Faith Pursley: the Texas Family Code, the Texas Penal Code, the Bible (as interpreted by the “elders” of the Church of Wells), and Born in Zion, a book written by a former nurse from Tampa, Florida, whose ideas are on the extreme fringe of evangelicalism, home birth, and midwifery.
I discussed the first three in my August 11 article about the negligent and reckless death of the three-day old infant, who was born with a routinely treatable birth defect, but received no medical care because her parents and the Church of Wells “elders” decided to deny the baby medical care in favor of praying that she would get well and, after she died, praying for her resurrection for up to 15 hours before reporting her death.
The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and two Cherokee County District Attorneys — Elmer Beckworth and Rachel Patton — ignored the plain requirements of the Family Code that parents must provide medical care for their children. County officials have tried to confuse the public about the fact that a crime was committed when the parents did not seek medical care for Faith Pursley when she exhibited several signs of medical distress from just after her birth until she died less than 72 hours later.
DA Beckworth argued that the parents could not be held liable if they did not intend the death.
DA Beckworth suggested to one voter — Wells Pastor Jim Maddox — four months after the baby’s death, that there were religious reasons the parents could not be prosecuted. Beckworth lost reelection to current DA Patton, who also has refused to go forward with any prosecution. Details of the crime can be found in my August 11 article. In a conversation I had with Beckworth this past summer, he argued that the parents could not be held liable if they did not intend the death. However, he is mistaken. This is not the law in Texas.
The Texas Family Code states explicitly that parents have a duty to provide medical care to their child (section 151.001). If parents intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or by omission, cause a child physical harm there can be no question that they violate Texas law in one of two ways. They would be guilty of either injury to a child or criminally negligent homicide. If they ignore a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a child would die without medical help (recklessness), they would be guilty of manslaughter.
Captain John Raffield of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office has made misleading statements that suggest that freedom of religion was involved with the baby’s death:
Hundreds of thousands of people give birth outside a hospital and hundreds of thousands do not get prenatal care. Prenatal care would have saved the baby. (But for) all the women who don’t receive prenatal care, are we going to charge them? Then, because of how they decided to handle it afterwords, we run into freedom of religion and things of that nature.
Raffield failed to comment on the clear evidence that a crime was committed under the Texas Family Code and the Texas Penal Code. The prayers for the baby’s resurrection after her death are irrelevant to the medical neglect and recklessness that preceded her death. Arguably, lack of prenatal care would be insufficient grounds on which to base a prosecution. But medical neglect after the baby was born falls squarely within Texas law.
‘Born in Zion’ promotes, in dogmatic terms, leaving medical personnel, including midwives, out of the birth process.
Several people have come forward to provide information that links the 2012 death of Faith Shalom Pursley to a birthing book self-published in 1992 by an extremist Florida sect leader, Carol Balizet. Born in Zion promotes, in dogmatic terms, leaving medical personnel, including midwives, out of the birth process and having a father deliver the baby. She believes such practices are God’s will. She claims to know this because God speaks to her regularly to direct her actions when attending the expected birth of a child as a “spiritual midwife.”
From several sources, I have confirmed that Daniel and Kristen Pursley had a copy of Balizet’s book and used it as a birthing and infant care manual when Faith was born. I have been unable to confirm whether Child Protective Services was aware that they were using the book, but it is near certain (based on their statements) that the “elders” knew of and supported its views, which led to their deadly directives to the Pursleys to forego medical assistance for the baby.
Her views are bizarre from most theological, biblical, and medical perspectives
Balizet considers herself a “spiritual midwife,” as opposed to being an actual midwife committed to responding actively and positively to the condition of the fetus, the mother (both before and after delivery), and the baby after it is born. Her views, outlined below, are anti-medical practice, in violation of midwifery standards and protocols, and bizarre from most theological, biblical, and medical perspectives:
- medical problems in labor are a result of the mother’s own spiritual practices and may result from insufficient faith in God or disputes between the parents
- problems with child birth, particularly breech births, can result from a home that is not sufficiently spiritual — a wife who is not in submission to her husband, children in rebellion against parents, a home that is out of order
- if someone in the family doesn’t want the baby, this may cause the umbilical cord to be wrapped around the baby’s neck
- the mother’s rejection of the pregnancy causes morning sickness
- pride can cause a long labor (Balizet’s reasoning: the Bible says that pride is caused by a stiff neck and the Latin name “cervix” means neck in English)
- a new mother’s excessive bleeding can be caused by “the soul life being poured out”
- if the placenta is delayed in coming out of the uterus, the cause may be something that the mother is hanging onto that God wants her to give up
- perineal tears are caused by past misdeeds (“defilements”) of the mother
- a long and painful delivery may be “the result of the parents not agreeing with God about … discipline”
- hospitals are filled with demons — “nudity, fear, pain, greed, lust, unbelief, drugs, death” all allow demons to be present and these conditions exist in all hospitals
- pelvic examinations by doctors are just submission to “a spirit of fornication and lust” that create a spiritual tie to the doctor and require repentance (this is also one reason a doctor should not be allowed to deliver a baby, whether in a hospital or a home)
- as the spiritual leader (“priest”) of the home, the father should be the first to lay hands on the baby as it is born so that he may claim his priestly authority over the infant
- if pain medicine is used in the delivery, both the mother and the baby will be invaded by demons associated with witchcraft and sorcery
- if inoculations or medications are given to a newborn, the child will have problems later in life with drug abuse
- miscarriages are punishments by God for refusing to let “Him be in control of the womb” (Kristin Pursley claims to have had several miscarriages before the birth of Faith)
- there is no need to be alarmed if a baby is born and does not start breathing on its own within a few moments: Balizet’s practice is to wait as long as 30 minutes for breathing to begin, intervening only if God instructs her to do so
- nothing bad or unpleasant will happen to a Christian if he or she stays always in the “spirit realm” — this is the reason parents and others must stand by doing nothing while a baby dies
Balizet views all medical or health problems as caused by spiritual insufficiencies — from arthritis, to diarrhea, to hemorrhoids, to nail-biting, to mastitis, to blindness, and virtually every other malady humans may have
Balizet also opposes Caesarian births, though she has had four such procedures herself. She links the procedure to Julius Caesar, stating that it will release “a spirit of Caesar… typified by despotic, humanistic man ruling without the Spirit or wisdom of God.” However, the name given the procedure appears not to have been related to Julius Caesar, but to the Latin name given the law (Lex Caesarea) – in effect for 600 years before Julius Caesar lived — that required removing a dead fetus from a mother who died during childbirth.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Balizet’s practices is that she alone decides
what is God’s will.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Balizet’s practices is that she alone decides what is God’s will when she agrees to serve as a “spiritual midwife.” This has led her to allow labor to go on for three days without intervention, to desert a woman who was hemorrhaging and going into shock (God told her, she reports, to ignore the problems because they didn’t really exist), to tell a woman in labor that she wasn’t really hurting, and to many more horrors. But sometimes God tells Balizet to intervene, using her actual midwifery skills to remove placental fragments and blood clots, to turn a breech baby, or to suction mucus from a newborn’s nose.
Balizet believes that true Christians must be separated from the counterfeits of the world — “the seven systems of Satan” — banking, public education, government, formal religion, institutional medicine, science, and entertainment. She explains her basic tenets:
Our goal is to encourage separation from the counterfeits of the world, and entrance into what is symbolically called Zion. This is a life TOTALLY dependent on God alone. We advocate home childbirth, home schooling, home healing, often even home churching, and other things which accompany a separation from the world and a return to the God-centered reality of the kingdom.
Balizet’s views have been augmented by books and beliefs espousing similar views, from the Quiverfull movement (God should be allowed to give a couple as many children as possible — a quiverfull — to help “win the religion and culture wars through demographic means”), the “Above Rubies” teachings, Vision Forum, Focus on the Family, Kenneth Copeland’s Word-Faith movement, and the Christian Patriarchy Movement.
Such views as Balizet’s have been preached by Church of Wells “elders” and other leaders, especially Cory McLaughlin, who has been identified as the person who likely convinced Daniel and Kristin Pursley to follow Balizet’s teachings about childbirth.
Pursley’s mother-in-law, Karen Dean, with whom he now refuses to talk, was astonished to find that earlier communications with her husband from Daniel contained many exact or nearly exact phrases from some of the sources cited above.
Those who encourage childbirth without medical assistance are firmly rooted in a worldview whose locus is a time when blood-letting and witchcraft were more prevalent than science and there were no laws to protect children from callous and distorted childcare practices based on ignorance, indifference, impatience, meanness, negligence, and recklessness.
Even evangelical home birth advocates find Balizet’s views shocking.
Even evangelical home birth advocates find Balizet’s views shocking. Jill Barrett, a Christian home birth advocate and blogger, has this to say about Born in Zion: “There is hardly a page in (the book) which does not strike me, and many other Christian home birth advocates, as blasphemous, heretical, or ludicrous in one way or another.” Barrett finds Balizet’s God as essentially powerless to do good in the world, constrained by a would-be Christian’s lack of faith and “the wrong kinds of prayers, sin, and most of all, Satan.” From Barrett’s perspective, Balizet’s belief in Satan makes Satan more powerful than God.
Barrett is even more explicit about the error of Balizet’s beliefs and practices in this statement:
If it is dangerous to have a so-called midwife attending you in childbirth who believes that Satan is controlling your birth unless she takes control, and who believes that at any moment God could tell her to walk out on you, it is more dangerous still to have a birth attendant who believes that reality is whatever she decides it is.
Faith Pursley is not the first child to die because her parents followed Balizet’s advice. Fifteen years ago, two children in the Attleboro cult in Massachusetts died. In 2001, in keeping with Balizet’s teachings, a mother died because of a lack of medical attention over a several-week period following post-childbirth hemorrhaging. In 2007, a Missouri woman and her baby died after the parents followed Balizet’s advice and relied on prayer, rather than seeking medical care, even after a childbirth instructor advised them to go to the hospital after she realized that the fetus had defecated in utero.
Another Christian evangelical who is highly critical of Balizet’s teachings is Adrian van Leen of Lookout Ministries, Inc. She sums up Balizet’s views from her research:
Sadly, the results of Balizet’s bizarre beliefs are not what most Christians would see to be God’s will. The teaching and practices of Balizet and her Home in Zion Ministries has a ring of Christian Science about it, with much of the Word-Faith movement as well, with dangerous consequences…. There is evidence of babies being still-born, of young children dying through medical neglect, and of mothers dying, when a call to an ambulance would have saved their lives…. Balizet and her Home in Zion Ministries believers are cultic, heretical, bizarre and dangerous. They grossly distort God’s Written Word, dishonor Christ, and endanger lives — especially the lives of young children.
No matter their religious beliefs, in Texas parents are not free to neglect a
child’s medical needs.
This is the environment that Faith Shalom Pursley was born into and that resulted in her death. No matter their religious beliefs, in Texas parents are not free to neglect a child’s medical needs because of a mistaken aversion to Texas child welfare laws. But Church of Wells “elders” and members also rely on a special relationship with Cherokee County officials, who won’t act against them because the officials fear that they will be accused of violating the religious freedom of parents and other members.
As Jill Barrett has written, “It will be regrettable if Zion Birth becomes everyone’s idea of Christian midwifery. It isn’t Christian, and it isn’t midwifery.” Barrett’s comment denouncing Balizet’s kind of midwifery is certainly true in Texas. Had a midwife licensed in Texas assisted with the birth of Faith Pursley, the regulations that midwives are required to follow would have assured that the baby would have received the medical care she desperately needed. But the arrogance and religious smugness of the Pursleys and the “elders” prevented the use of a licensed midwife.
Contrary to Daniel Pursley’s statement blaming God for the baby’s death, the cause of Faith Pursley’s death was parental neglect and their reckless behavior in following the absurd advice of a deranged religious extremist from Florida, as well as the directives of their own “elders.” If the parents and the “elders” of the Church of Wells don’t understand their wrongful conduct regarding baby Faith, no action by the members of that group is beyond the pale of the most extreme circumstances imaginable — and we can expect more unnecessary and tragic deaths in Cherokee County.
[Thanks to the many bloggers and commenters who are not mentioned by name in this article, to Kathryn Joyce (writing at slate.com), and to those who contacted me directly, who contributed to and helped guide my research on this topic. – LWH]
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, also blogs at Texas Freethought Journal. This article © Texas Freethought Journal, Lamar W. Hankins.]