Rita Swan: A Giant of Children’s Civil Rights to Health and Medical Care
October 26, 2022

Rita Swan, who passed away on October 4, 2022, was a giant in establishing children’s civil rights to health and medical care. We at CHILD USA will miss her dearly, and, on a personal note, I have lost one of my most important mentors in the fight to save children from abuse and neglect.

Rita and her husband, Doug, were Christian Scientists, who followed their faith until they lost their young son. Soon, they abandoned the faith and pivoted to become pioneers for children’s rights to health, and founded the nonprofit, Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD, Inc.).  Her story is brilliantly told in Dr. Paul Offit’s book, Bad Faith. Paul is a leading global vaccine expert on CHILD, Inc.’s Board. You likely saw him frequently on television during the Covid-19 pandemic!

I met Rita after I persuaded the Supreme Court to invalidate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Boerne v. Flores. I was then the only law professor in the United States to take a very public and principled stand against extreme religious liberty. Indeed before the case, I wrote a law review article arguing for very high levels of religious liberty. Rita was a promising voice showing me the way to common sense on religious liberty.  My new stance was unintentional—I learned what I needed to know after having every mainstream religious organization oppose my client in Boerne. She sought me out with a mission; she would educate me—whether I liked it or not- on the children at risk from extreme religious liberty statutes like RFRA and the religious exemptions to vaccines and medical care in the states.  At the time, I didn’t even know that so many religions in the U.S. embraced faith healing that would let children die of easily treated ailments. I had no idea children were being martyred by their parents with the help of state exemptions to the laws that require vaccinations and medical care.

She schooled me on the religious groups that were not vaccinating their children and depriving them of medical care even if they faced certain death. As a mother, I was appalled.  As a scholar, I was blessed to learn the facts of religious overreaching that were nowhere in the law and religion literature.

Because of Rita, I was invited to speak at the Annual meeting of the American Atheists, where I gave a talk on religious liberty following Boerne. The truth is that I learned far more than I imparted. I honestly hadn’t seen the pattern in the cases involving children toward their civil rights.  Rita knew it was cold and lectured me after my talk.  I deserved it; I also relished it. This was a frontier for constitutional law, and I could not turn away from it.

When I was first considering leaving Cardozo Law School to become one of the first Professors of Practice at Penn and to start CHILD USA, I heard through the grapevine that Rita was retiring.  I was very concerned that her decades of progress for the sake of children’s healthcare would disappear. Our society so often sweeps women’s achievements under the rug, and I simply could not let that happen with her groundbreaking work for children.  I reached out and we came to an agreement. The CHILD-children’s healthcare is a legal duty– logo would become part of CHILD USA’s logo. Just as importantly, we agreed to continue Rita’s leadership in fighting for children to have the right to health.  I was honored and humbled that Rita and her Board agreed to let us carry her passion forward.

We are a young organization still expanding our reach, and vaccine access and rights to medical care are from one of our 3 pillars in the civil rights movement for children: (1) rights to not be abused and to have access to justice if abused; (2) rights to vaccination and medical care; and (3) rights to quality education.  In Rita’s memory, we will be permanently preserving her research and information from her website, which she sent to us before her passing.  We will also be taking a more proactive role in fighting for vaccine access for children and the end of religious medical exemptions. As the Supreme Court said in Prince v. Massachusetts, a parent may be a martyr unto themselves, but they do not have a right to make their children martyrs.

Rita received the Child Protector Award at our first CHILD USA  Awards Celebration.

I can’t believe she won’t be able to join us for another tribute to her. Rest in peace, Rita, and we will soldier on to honor your historic legacy.

Rita’s work in ending child abuse and medical neglect cutting edge is inspiring legal analysis. Leigh Johnson, CHILD USA’s  2020 legal intern, and University of Chicago Law School student, recently published a student comment on this topic in the University of Chicago Law Review! Leigh began researching school immunization laws during her summer internship with CHILD USA.

In her comment, “My Body, Your Choice,” Leigh argues that children have a qualified autonomy right to consent to recommended vaccines without parental permission if they can meet an informed-consent standard. In her analysis, Leigh outlines the history of vaccination laws in the United States and discusses what’s at the heart of this debate: the conflict between parental rights and children’s rights. Leigh proposes a statutory solution that would preserve the child’s bodily autonomy rights while also recognizing the interests of the parent.

Rita envisioned a world where children are healthy and happy! I could not be more proud of the fact that  CHILD USA owes its origin to this giant in the civil rights movement for children.