There's been a lot of ink in the last few days about the study published in the American Heart Journal focussing on the impact of prayer in a population of cardiac patients. Almost everyone noticed the counterintuitive result, that people who were prayed for and knew it did worse. But the article acknowledges what cannot be spoken in Christian AmeriKa: If prayer was an OTC drug, it we would now have people screaming for it to be pulled from the shelves.
Compared with the very high level of study design, conduct, and analysis, the STEP investigators' interpretation of the study results appears to reflect more the cultural bias that healing prayer could only seriously be explored for effectiveness, not for safety issues. Culturally, “harm” resulting from prayer is generally ascribed to overtly “negative” prayer, such as hateful prayer, voodoo, spells, or other black magic. Positively intended intercessory prayer is considered a priori to be only capable of doing good, if it does anything at all. But this cultural dichotomy is medically problematic and ethically unacceptable in the setting of a clinical trial performing structured experimentation on human subjects. Particularly in the absence of mechanistic insight, outcome researchers must be vigilant in asking the question of whether a well-intentioned, loving, heartfelt healing prayer might inadvertently harm or kill vulnerable patients in certain circumstances. Although the STEP data do not actually prove that prayer had an untoward effect on coronary artery bypass graft patients, to simply write off significantly worse outcomes in one of the experimental arms as the play of chance is in striking contrast to all the other measures the STEP coordinating center and investigators took to ensure the safety of participating patients and quality of the study data. Thus, although the STEP investigators used every appropriate means of protection of the human subjects who participated in their study, the casual approach to the question of safety in the final data interpretation promotes a dangerously ambiguous message to investigators who might be inclined to do research in this area in the future.
[From efficacy to safety concerns: A STEP forward or a step back for clinical research and intercessory prayer?: The Study of Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)]
Yeah, you read that right. Human subjects review boards are now on notice. And Padre? We see you round this hospital again, you better be wearing Kevlar.