Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Ethics of Daniel Hauser’s Forced Medical Treatment
(6/2009)

The thing is, we have to draw the line at killing kids.

There really shouldn’t be much controversy among civilized, rational adults about the decision to force chemotherapy on 13-year-old Daniel Hauser, whose parents, for whatever reason, have gone around the bend and taken him with them. Daniel has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the more treatable and survivable cancers, and his parents have fallen under the influence of an exotic group called the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based religious organization that advocates Native American alternative medical treatments. The Scoreboard won’t venture any conclusions about the group, although the fact that its founder, Philip Cloudpiler Landis, once served four months in prison for peddling fraudulent natural remedies would certainly make me hesitant to substitute his prescriptions for those of the Mayo Clinic. But if Daniel’s parents want to risk their lives and health marching to the Band, that is their business, just as it’s their business if they decide to race speedboats blind-folded, juggle Gila Monsters or date O.J. Simpson. It’s also their right to make decisions for their child...up to a point.

Where that point should be is an ethical dilemma. State governments hold parents to certain minimal standards of care, and beyond that, gives parents broad license to mess up their children in myriad ways. They can make their offspring fat, obsessed, neurotic, fanatic, violent, intolerant, bigoted, insecure, heartless, ignorant, sexist, stupid and/or hateful, and as long as the child gets some semblance of schooling, some meals and a roof over his or her head, the government will stay away. That’s the way it should be because, examining the alternative, families are still more trustworthy when it comes to raising children than governments are. Despite all the Octomoms and the Dena Lohans and the horrible Little League dads, the vast majority of American children turn out just fine, even many of those whose parents make Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver.

To turn out fine, however, they have to actually live through childhood. So when a state, like Minnesota, sees that two parents who may be loving and sincere and good caregivers in many ways, are barreling toward tragedy by making their own vulnerable, trusting child their risky bet on faith, there is an affirmative duty to act. When Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote, in 1949, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” he acknowledged that sometimes rights have to yield to realities. Freedom of religion is a core American principle. A child of 13, however, is not truly free to choose his religion. The government has not only the power but the obligation to prevent parents from choosing one that kills him.

The doctors and the statistics say that timely chemotherapy will give Daniel Hauser a 90% chance of survival. In contrast, the Band’s herbs and snake dances or whatever they do offer 5% odds, according to most medical experts. Daniel’s parents don’t believe it. They don’t believe his life is in danger, in fact. According to his statements, Daniel himself doesn’t even think he’s seriously ill. His parents stopped chemo after one treatment, and argue in their brief that the government forcing their son to endure it is indistinguishable from torture (and a hearty Basil Faulty “oh, thank you VERY much!” to John Yoo and the other torture memo authors for turning a word that we understood for years into rhetorical Silly Putty).

No. The order of Brown County Minnesota District Judge John Rodenberg forcing Daniel to undergo the approved medical treatment that is most likely to save his life is right, fair and good. Daniel is not old enough, wise enough (thanks to the home-schooling skills of his parents and learning disabilities, he cannot yet read) or free enough to make a decision that could, and probably would, cost him his life. The judge is not infringing on his autonomy and religious freedom, because Daniel has none: Daniel’s parents have dictated his religion to him. In the judge’s findings of fact, he noted that the various affidavits submitted on the representation that they were Daniel’s words obviously were not the statements of this simple-speaking boy who cannot read or write. When Daniel is no longer a child, and fully able to make his own decisions, he can then choose to embrace the teachings and medical innovations of the Nemenhah Band, if it still has any followers alive then. Or he can choose to juggle Gila Monsters.

The ethical choice is to make sure he has the chance to make his own bad choices that might kill him. That means that his parents lose the right to do it first.

You can read the various documents in this fascinating case at http://www.courts.state.mn.us/?page=NewsItemDisplay&item=45848

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