helping those who won’t help themselves

How far should we go to help people who refuse to help themselves? Or worse yet, whose parents refuse treatment we know will keep them alive?
illustration by Erik Anderson

Science and skeptic blogs are tracking the story of Daniel Hauser, a 13 year old boy with Hodgkin’s lymphoma who’s mother won’t allow him to undergo chemotherapy treatments because modern medicine conflicts with the tenants of Nemnhah, her Native American religious tradition. Instead, she proposes to treat her son with herbs and vitamins mentioned in a variety of internet articles from alternative medicine practitioners. In doing so, she lowered her son’s chances of survival from the average 95% to a dismal and terrifying 5% according to his oncologist. Seems that the herbs which were supposed to cure the child will be complicit in his death.

Ideas about curing cancers with vitamins and herbs are nothing new, but what’s novel about using alternative medicine to treat lymphoma in this case, is a religious justification for doing so. The First Amendment grants freedom of religion and when you’re ignoring a recognized religious group, you could technically be infringing on their right to express their beliefs and trigger all sorts of protests and countersuits.

This is why a court order to return Daniel to a hospital where he would be treated by modern medicine and get an immensely better shot at surviving his disease, may get messy and since he was raised into his mother’s religion, he’s already refused to obey such an order even if it’s issued which would nullify any good that could come from it. Would the judge really order the police to drag Daniel to the hospital, kicking and screaming? Is it really the best thing to do when your help will be seen as tyrannical meddling even when sound science and solid fact are firmly on your side? How far should we go to help those who need our help but don’t want if for a completely irrational reason?

Another big question to consider is whether Colleen Hauser would be liable for her child’s death by refusing modern treatment. Courts can, and do, hold parents liable for refusing to help their children get medical care, even when religion is involved. Appealing to the idea that vitamins, herbs and homeopathic cures were valid medicine might also fall on deaf ears. In Australia, a couple who treated their baby for eczema with standard homeopathic treatments and refused to seek conventional medical help when those treatments failed and their daughter died of repeated infections, was charged with gross criminal negligence. It doesn’t seem that a U.S. court would consider vitamins and herbs as a legitimate method of treating lymphoma, especially when medical experts say the treatments are doing nothing for the child, in much the same way the aforementioned Australian case has played out so far.

And again, there’s an issue of whether a court will draw a line in the sand and say that your firm beliefs aren’t valid when someone is about to be harmed by them and society will take over your duties. How far should we try going to help people who refuse to help themselves and those in their care?

# health // law / medicine / public health

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