March 31, 1980 12:00 PM

When their baby, Matthew, developed an alarmingly high fever, Doug and Rita Swan knew exactly what to do: As devout, lifelong Christian Scientists, they called not a physician but their regular church practitioner, Jeanne Laitner, who began praying for Matthew. “She told us not to pray for Matthew ourselves, as that would interfere with her work,” Rita recalls. “Also, we were not supposed to tell anyone about Matthew’s illness because an outsider’s thought could obstruct the healing.” But the healing didn’t happen. “I stood by Matthew’s crib,” says Rita, “wondering if I was allowed to wipe the perspiration off him or give him a cool drink of orange juice.”

As Matthew’s condition deteriorated, the Swans grew panicky. Too frightened to go to the hospital—”We were genuinely afraid of what medical science would do to our son,” Rita recalls—they retained a new practitioner, but to no avail. Matthew became unable to eat, his spine stiffened, and he suffered convulsions. Desperate after enduring 12 days of their baby’s illness, the Swans rushed him to the hospital. Emergency neurosurgery was performed, but it was too late: Spinal meningitis had caused irreversible brain damage. Six days later Matthew died. He was 16 months old. “As the doctors explained how the meningitis was causing all the symptoms we had seen, I finally realized that disease was a physical fact with physical explanations,” says Rita, 36. “Medical knowledge shattered the ignorance which had mired us in Christian Science.”

To Christian Scientists the denial of disease is not ignorance, it is proper expression of the view that illness is an illusion to be dispelled only by the affirmation of God. But after their infant son died, the Swans could no longer hold that view. Last month, almost three years after Matthew’s death, they filed a lawsuit against the church and the two practitioners they had retained during Matthew’s illness, charging them with negligence in failing to report the disease to health officials—as must be done, by law, in the case of many infectious diseases. The lawsuit has already drawn blood. The church-owned Christian Science Monitor, which rarely takes religious positions, recently ran a strong editorial in defense of “Christian healing.” “No rational person…would indict the whole of modern medicine on the basis of a child’s death under medical treatment,” the editorial stated, noting that more than 700 infants had died of spinal meningitis—despite treatment—in the same year that Matthew did. Accusing the Swans of spreading “sensational allegations,” church officer Arthur Davies insists: “There is nothing dictatorial here. No one can forbid you to seek medical help. A patient can work with any practitioner. It is their free choice.” Both of the practitioners involved insist that the Swans themselves decided against seeking medical advice.

The Swans, however, contend that even when Matthew began to scream in pain, June Ahearn, their second practitioner, actively discouraged them from consulting a physician. “She prophesied a ‘long hard road’ back to Christian Science if we turned to medicine,” claims Rita. “When on the 11th day Matthew continued to have convulsions and gnash his teeth, Mrs. Ahearn told us to take a positive view of the evidence—maybe Matthew was gritting his teeth because he was planning some great achievement.”

Eventually Ahearn offered the Swans an excuse to seek help. Because Christian Scientists are permitted to have broken bones set by a doctor, Rita insists, Ahearn suggested that Matthew might be suffering from a broken neck bone. That was when the Swans took Matthew to the hospital. For six days he lay in a coma, but once she turned to medicine Rita couldn’t find a Christian Science practitioner willing to pray for her son. “A practitioner has to know that the baby’s life is not dependent upon chemicals or machines,” she says bitterly.

Immediately after Matthew died, the Swans decided to leave the church. “We very much loved our son,” explains Doug, 40. “We were very deeply affected by his death. It wasn’t right for him to suffer so needlessly when common drugs cure 95 percent of meningitis.” Although they had been raised as Christian Scientists, they say they are happy now as Methodists. “I don’t want to get deeply involved again,” says Rita. “I’d rather be a ho-hum Protestant.” While Doug’s family has been understanding, Rita’s parents were deeply troubled by her rejection of Christian Science. “My father and I are incommunicado,” she admits.

The Swans left their suburban Detroit home a year and a half ago for a modest five-acre spread in Jamestown, N.Dak. Both teach at nearby Jamestown College: Doug is chairman of the math department, Rita teaches English part-time. Since they went public with their story, the Swans have received more than 600 letters, many describing similar tragedies. As part of what they call “the Matthew Project,” they have become immersed in laws about children’s rights. They have found that most states have laws protecting Christian Scientists from negligence suits when they shun medical advice for their children. The Swans want such statutes to be repealed. “I think our lawsuit, if it is successful, will show that the Mother Church has the responsibility to advise members when the system is not working,” says Rita. “One of the most heartrending things in Christian Science is to think you have a healing, and then years later the symptoms show up again.”

That misfortune befell Rita herself shortly after Matthew’s birth. Troubled by an ovarian cyst, she spent hundreds of dollars retaining Christian Science practitioners, until the pain forced her to have the cyst surgically removed. On her return from the hospital, she says, church members asked her to step down from her positions as a committee worker and Sunday school teacher. Though she managed eventually to regain their confidence in her belief, her memory of that ostracism helped to discourage her from calling a physician for Matthew. The Swans’ hope now is to turn their tragedy into a positive force for change. But, Doug says, “Grieving never ends.” His eyes fill with tears as he looks at his healthy 18-month-old daughter Marsha. “Matthew’s birth was one of the outstanding events of my life. A child is God’s greatest gift. And now, every time I see a newborn baby, I can’t help but cry.”

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