Over the past couple of weeks, the news has been filled with headlines about 13-year-old Daniel Hauser, a Minnesota boy diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Citing religious grounds (the family are members of the Nemenhah Band of Native Americans, who are proponents of natural healing methods), the boy and his mother began refusing chemotherapy after a single treatment. The Brown County court stepped in and ordered treatment to resume. When he and his mother Colleen lost their court appeal, they went on the run. They returned Monday after a week in hiding to face a custody hearing.
The ethical implications of this story are legion. Let’s start by naming just a few.
- Does a minor have a right to refuse medical treatment on any grounds, religious or otherwise?
- Does a parent have the right to decide to refuse treatment for his or her child on religious grounds?
- Does the state have a right to overturn personal choice in either a minor or an adult?
- Does the state have a right to take custody of a child under these circumstances?
Complicating this story are several factors.
The leader of the Nemenhah Band, the religious organization to which Hauser and his mother belong, apparently leaves room for debate regarding the spiritual requirements of their faith concerning medical treatment. (See Beliefnet’s Editor-In-Chief Steve Waldman’s blog post on this topic for a thoughtful dissection of the facts.) Yet Daniel, calling the chemo treatment ‘toxic’ (and anyone who has ever had chemo won’t argue the chemicals used are poisons, albeit specifically targeted ones), is refusing to have further treatment, even though Hodgkin’s is 90% curable in children when treated with chemo and radiation, and almost always fatal without. He and his mother seem to honestly believe the treatment will kill him, and that, on the contrary, the unproven alternative methods they espouse will cure the cancer.
Now, I’m a bit biased. One of my childhood friends had this same disease, had the treatment, and 15 years later is the happy, healthy mother of two adorable children. All I can say is I’m glad she’s alive. I’m not a big believer in a nanny state when it comes to adults, but when it comes to kids I think it’s a different matter–even (perhaps especially) when religion is involved. The things I believed in when I was 13 in no way resemble the things I believe now, and I’m glad I have had the opportunity to grow and rethink some of my adolescent ‘certainties’. I’m not sure that as a teenager anyone is able to make a rational choice about their future, and while adults may, if they choose, decide to risk death by flying in the face of conventional medical wisdom and leave their fate in the hands of their faith, it seems insane to me to allow (or force) a child to make that same choice.
I’ve also read that Daniel Hauser is illiterate and was home-schooled, and may not be fully able to comprehend the full facts of his medical condition. Surely, more thoughtful heads should intervene in this case–and have, in the person of the Brown County court system.
Do you agree?