To Force Treatment or Not To Force Treatment?

To Force Treatment or Not To Force Treatment?

To Force Treatment or Not To Force Treatment?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 19 2009 5:30 PM

To Force Treatment or Not To Force Treatment?

At what age can a child refuse medical treatment-and do his reasons for doing so matter? Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old Minnesota boy suffering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, went through one course of chemo before he and his parents decided to reject standard cancer treatment in favor of alternative medicine. They've said that their practices reflect their religious beliefs as followers of the Nemenhah Band , a group led by Phillip "Cloudpiler" Landis that encourages natural remedies. (They also attend a Catholic church.) Last week, a judge ruled that Daniel's parents were "medically neglecting" him by refusing to continue to treat him using conventional medicine. The family was supposed to appear in court today to discuss the results of a chest X-ray and determine a course of treatment, but Daniel and his mother didn't appear. (It sounds all too close to Miriam's Well by Lois Ruby , a YA novel I cherished as a young teen, but I doubt it'll have the same happy ending.) Now an arrest warrant has been issued for Colleen Hauser. His father says that he hasn't seen them since last night and doesn't know where they are - convenient. He's gravely ill and recently told a doctor that he had pain that was "10 out of 10" in his chest, but that pain apparently hasn't convinced him to submit to an oncologist's will. He even threatened to punch and kick any doctors who tried to treat him.

It sounds as though Daniel is simply trying to adhere to his faith, but he might just be scared to undergo treatment. The blogger at Respectful Insolence, a scientist/surgeon, asked last week whether the Hausers are just using religion as an excuse . Daniel underwent one course of chemo - the first of a recommended six - in February, and he and his family were alarmed by the complications; he is also reportedly haunted by the fact that an aunt died while undergoing chemo when he was 5.

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If this is a case of rejecting the side effects rather than the idea of medical treatment, it's tough to tell who led whom down this path - did Daniel himself balk first, or did his parents? Thirteen seems far too young to be able to decide to treat or not to treat, and Daniel himself reportedly can't read and has demonstrated poor understanding of his illness. That makes it a pretty open-and-shut case, as far as I can tell - find the kid, if child protective services can find him before it's too late, and make him undergo if his cancer is still treatable. (Do the legal eagles among us think differently?)

I can't help but wonder, though, how this would play out if it were a highly mature 17-year-old who rejected faith healing, alternative medicine, and conventional treatment. If he wanted to forgo treatment in favor of dying just because he hated chemo, would we force him?

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies.