Blood test for newborns faces religious challenge

Omaha World-Herald/December 21, 2004
By Todd Cooper

Forget about a silent night. A Saunders County couple wanted their baby to have a silent week - and they took the state to court to get it.

Ray and Louise Spiering argued last week in federal court that the state's mandatory blood test, which involves a pin prick and a blood draw from a baby's heel, would violate the seven days of silence that their religion, the Church of Scientology, favors for all newborns.

And, they argued, the law requiring the test violates their constitutional right to freely practice their religion.

During a hastily scheduled hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf granted the Spierings' request for a temporary order restraining the state from taking their newborn's blood within 48 hours of birth.

Kopf's ruling means that the Spierings' fourth child, whose birth is expected at any time, will spend his or her first week in relative silence.

But the case could have a lasting effect on state law. Kopf will rule later on the law's constitutionality.

Nebraska is one of only four states that do not allow an exemption for parents who oppose the test for reasons such as religious beliefs.

Lawmakers and experts have said Nebraska's lack of an exemption is for good reason. Enacted in 1967, the blood test law requires screening for all kinds of metabolic diseases that, if unchecked, can cause severe mental retardation and a lifetime of costly health care.

The Spiering case is the second request for a religious exemption in the past year.

In the fall of 2003, the Douglas County Attorney's Office took an Omaha couple, Josue and Mary Anaya, to court for their refusal to have their baby tested. A Douglas County district judge last December ordered the tests, but the Anayas appealed, saying the state should have a religious exemption.

The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to hear their appeal next spring.

Kopf heard nearly two hours of arguments Friday in Lincoln.

The Spierings' attorney, Gene Summerlin, and Amy Miller of the ACLU-Nebraska argued in court documents that the Spierings are simply trying to uphold their religious beliefs.

According to the couple's lawsuit:

The Spierings believe that the seven days of silence - known to Scientologists as the "Silent Birth Method" - are "essential for the physical and spiritual well-being of their children."

"As a result, every effort should be made to avoid subjecting the baby to loud sounds, talking, stress or pain during the first seven days of the baby's life," the lawsuit says. "Because a baby goes through so much pain during the birth process, Scientologists believe that a newborn baby should not be subjected to any further pain or significant sensory experiences."

In arguing for a religious exemption, Summerlin pointed out a contradiction in state law.

If a baby is born in a hospital, state regulations require that blood be taken within 48 hours of birth. But if a baby is born outside a hospital, a blood sample doesn't have to be submitted for 14 days.

Summerlin said that contradiction could influence some women to give birth at home, instead of in a hospital.

"It makes no sense," Summerlin said. "It's placing people at an increased risk of harm."

The Spierings were able to avoid the state's two-day mandatory window - and comply with their religious beliefs - with their first three children. Their first child was born in Minnesota - a state that allows exemptions for religious beliefs.

Their second child was born in the car on the way to the hospital, so the 14-day rule applied. Their third child was born at St. Elizabeth's Regional Medical Center in Lincoln in 2002. The couple, their doctor and the hospital agreed to wait seven days to perform the blood test, the lawsuit says.

After Louise Spiering became pregnant with the couple's fourth child, they tried to make the same arrangement. However, hospital officials informed the Spierings that they couldn't do it because of strict state regulations.

So the Spierings, who have lobbied the Legislature before for an exemption, took their case to court.

Kopf, in his temporary order, instructed the couple to have the test "as soon as possible" after the seventh day. He will rule later on the constitutionality of the state law.

Kopf said his "mind may well be changed" when he hears further arguments.

Dr. Hobart Wiltse, a retired Omaha doctor and an expert on metabolic diseases, hopes it is. Wiltse acknowledged that such diseases are rare - about one in 3,000 babies develop the most common disease.

However, he said, the risk of not testing is enormous. If caught early, all the diseases can be treated - avoiding a lifetime of costly care.

"I can be reasonably tolerant about a (short) delay," Wiltse said of the testing. "But having a child unscreened totally is a bigger risk than any parent would rationally want to take - especially if they had seen the consequences that I've seen."

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