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May 20, 2009

Uncle Sam calling the ’shots’

Daniel Hauser A 13-year-old Minnesota boy, Daniel Hauser, has refused recommended treatment for a growing tumor in his chest and vows to kick and punch anyone who attempts to force chemotherapy upon him. For religious reasons, the young Hauser and his family determined that chemotherapy and radiation treatment would be inappropriate and instead sought alternative treatment to cure the disease. 

As reported by the Associated Press, “The Hausers are Roman Catholic and also believe in the ‘do no harm’ philosophy of the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based religious group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians.”

Because doctors do not expect the boy to survive without the necessary treatment, a judge has ruled that the parents and the boy must move forward in getting an additional chest x-ray and select an oncologist. With chemotherapy he has a 95% chance of surviving, but the alternative treatment bears just a 5% likelihood of success. 

Having experienced chemotherapy as a 16 year old I feel sincere, heart-wrenching pain for this young man. Being diagnosed with cancer at a young age is a difficult situation to deal with, but the spiritual pain can be just as devastating. I guess you could say that I was fortunate that my faith didn’t object to chemotherapy, because my cancer had a high success rate of cure when treated with chemotherapy and surgery. 

Hauser has a similar prognosis with chemotherapy, but because of his religious belief, there is likely no comfortable solution as to what should be done.

Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg said Hauser has a “rudimentary understanding at best of the risks and benefits of chemotherapy ... he does not believe he is ill currently. The fact is that he is very ill currently.” The judge added that the parents have “medically neglected” their son. This case is clearly in the gray area, but it’s troubling that the judge is only considering the physical health of Hauser and completely disregarding his religious convictions. 

The boy may be unaware of the consequences and complications of his situation, given that he has a learning disability and cannot read, but what about his parents? I have trouble thinking that the government is better at determining our future than we are. At what point should the government step in and say, “You’re not suited to care for your child. So, instead, we’re going to parent in your stead.” 

Without a medical finding that determines mental instability on the part of the parents, it’s dangerous for a judge to tell people what kind of treatment they must have administered to their child. Arthur Caplan, chair of the medical ethics department at the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t believe the right of a person to refuse treatments extends to incompetent people or children. But again, who determines incompetency? It’s possible that a pregnant mother who faces certain death unless she aborts her child is “incompetent." Without freedom and life being equally paramount, the slippery slope of judicial activism could be devastating.

Admittedly, I don’t understand a religious justification for rejecting modern medicine, but I am a huge proponent of free will. My concern with Hauser is less about his being forced into chemotherapy and is more about the government arbitrarily injecting itself into religious decisions. How do we determine who is free to act, and who submits to the will of the government? Who gets to act as a steward for the “incompetent”? What checks are in place to overturn judicial activism?

The end result of this complicated ordeal might be a 13-year-old boy strapped down to a hospital bed, while he is administered chemotherapy against the will of himself and his parents. After defying a court order, Colleen Hauser, Daniel Hauser’s mother, has been found in contempt of court. Both Hauser and his mother are currently on the run from Brown County Sheriffs. Judge Rodenberg ordered that Hauser be placed in foster care as soon as he is found.

Regardless of where any one of us may fall on this specific case, we should all prayerfully keep in mind Daniel and all others who suffer from physical and spiritual pain. 

(Image © Kyndell Harkness for the Star Tribune)

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