Seven times since 1980, Christian Scientist parents have been prosecuted on criminal charges involving refusal to give medical treatment to a sick child.

Parents were convicted in five cases and acquitted in one, and the other case was thrown out of court.

In the most recent case, David and Ginger Twitchell of Massachusetts were convicted of manslaughter last July and sentenced to 10 years' probation for denying medical care to their dying son.

The Twitchells, lifelong Christian Scientists, were found guilty of recklessly and wantonly causing the death of their 2 1/2-year-old son Robyn by relying solely on prayer to heal the boy.

Robyn died at home after a five-day illness on April 8, 1986. An autopsy showed that he died of a bowel obstruction caused by a congenital defect that doctors say could have been cured by surgery.

The outcome in the Twitchell case was especially closely watched by religious leaders, physicians and parents around the country because the two-month trial was held in Boston, the world headquarters of the Christian Science Church and a bastion of the scientific and medical establishment.

Besides putting the Twitchells on 10 years' probation, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin ordered them to get regular medical checkups for their three surviving children and to seek a doctor's care immediately if any of the children shows signs of serious illness.

Christian Science generally shuns medicine in favor of spiritual healing.

During the trial, Twitchell testified that he had undergone a root canal procedure with the painkiller Novocain after prayers had failed for six months to heal a decayed tooth.

The prosecution accused the Twitchells of following a double standard by seeking medical care -- even if rarely -- for themselves while denying it to their child.

The defense argued that none of the witnesses who saw Robyn alive realized his life was in danger.

In resorting only to spiritual healing for their son, their lawyer argued, the Twitchells were merely acting in accordance with what they had been told and taught.

Nathan Talbot, a spokesman for the Christian Science Church, said after the sentencing that it was "the state's effort to impose its own view" on where the government should draw the line on freedom of religion.

"It's an effort to re-educate Christian Scientists into the state's view of what healing ought to be," Talbot said.

The Twitchells, who last week requested a retrial and plan to appeal if that request is rejected, as is likely, have said that in the meantime they will reluctantly comply with the judge's order.

But in a brief statement after the sentencing, David Twitchell said he would "always pray first" for his children's health.

"We have never ruled out medical care," Twitchell said. "We just feel prayer, God's power, is a lot better."