Saturday, May 16, 2009

What Would You Do?

A judge in Minnesota just ruled that a 13-year-old boy must undergo chemotherapy.

The boy, who has Hodgkin's lymphoma, and his parents have been refusing chemotherapy on the grounds that it conflicts with their religious beliefs. According to one article, though, the boy did have one chemotherapy treatment and refused additional treatments after suffering untoward side effects.


This case troubles me on so many levels. Should a boy die because he parents refuse treatment? Should a child be forced to endure a medical treatment that is, at best, unpleasant, and, at worst, harmful?

The judge ruled for treatment because "overwhelming evidence" suggests that the boy will live with treatment, but die without it.

Yes, but...Is any decision ever that easy? What it he lives, but suffers side effects that destroy his quality of life? Potential long-term side effects include infertility, heart disease, lung damage and the tiny but very real possibility of developing a second cancer in the future. Should it be up to a judge to make that decision for a boy and his family?

What troubles me most about this case, I think, is that it illustrates how hard it is to die in this country. I'm not saying the boy has a death wish, and I'm not saying that his parents wish to hasten his death. I am, however, saying that years ago, they wouldn't have had a choice.

Today, though, numerous "medical miracles" help keep death at bay. Chemotherapy holds off cancer. Kidney transplants bring new life to ailing bodies. Medication stimulates blood flow.

But I'll let you in on a little secret: we all die sometime anyway. All the treatments, all the options -- sooner or later, the body will go anyway. So what right do we, as a society, have to tell anyone how long to hang on? Who are we to say, "you must undergo this treatment, as unpleasant as it may be, because it will help you live longer?" What's wrong with letting nature take its course?

I understand the complexities involved when the patient in question is a minor. The issue, of course, is whether the minor fully understands what's going on, or whether the child is left to die because of his parents' beliefs.

And yet...something about this just doesn't feel right.


  1. I agree, something doesn't feel right, although I don't know the details of this particular case. I am a firm believer in people though, and if someone doesn't think a treatment will work, or is forced into a treatment that they do not want, I do not believe the treatment will work; the power of the mind is something we don't fully understand or appreciate. The placebo effect has been proven over and over on this one. So I wonder what possible benefit the chemotherapy can have.

    Personal rights and freedoms also come to mind on this one. We have a government that is increasingly more and more comfortable stepping in and making choices for individuals. This does not sit well with me.

  2. Jennifer, with stories like this, the media NEVER tells the whole thing. For me, I would side with the parents since this country was founded on religious beliefs, however, we have to be careful since sometimes the parents aren't always thinking clearly. But I still think the courts should STAY OUT of family affairs. JMO.

  3. If this boy were 18 and refused treatment would the courts have stepped in? No.

    You are so correct about it being hard to die in this nation. I can think of so many situations, some big media events, in which a person was tugged like a rag doll over whether to keep alive or allow the dignity of death.

    When I had to make medical decisions for my dad, I respected his desire to have dignity over a drawn out life. The ER doc kept trying to talk me into something, anything. It was easy to say "No" because Dad and I had many conversations about what his living will meant TO HIM.

    I have those same conversations with my hubby and kids.

    In this situation, I would like to think these parents also talked with their son. I would like to think they respected him enough to help him make an informed decision.

    This doesn't appear to be a case of neglect -- they after all sought medical advice.

    I think I have to side with these parents.

  4. This is a key issue facing our country today... with democrats like Barbara Boxer trying to push the UN Treaty on the Rights of the Child on us, these types of decisions are being taken out of the hands of the parents who should be making them.

    I believe in most cases, maybe 98% or more, the court does not know what is in the best interest of the child and should be ruled by the parents' wishes. But there are those few cases where parents really are doing nothing for their child, or worse, endangering their child, and just using religion as an excuse.

    The media always covers the story when a family has refused medical treatment on religious grounds and the child dies. I always wonder how many children died with medical care and the media never said a word.

  5. This is an interesting hypothetical, but almost too painful to contemplate even in the abstract. I can't imagine that anyone wins in this case, but its comforting to think that the child's needs are given first priority. Whatever they are.

  6. If a child is stuck in a hole, and you're in the middle of nowhere, and all you can do is pull and pull to get him out, which could result in serious complications such as bleeding, losing a limb, etc, what do you do?

    And, if there is a very very strong person with you, who thinks you should pull him out, what happens?

    What if all the adults want to pull him out, but he says, "leave me!"

    What if the adults all know he will suffer life-long problems, and he says, "pull me out!"?

    What if he's unconscious.

    Substitute pulling a child out of a hole with chemo. It's not an easy question.

    I wish I could say that the courts should never intervene in these kinds of matters, but then I wonder, if I was the kid, would I want there to be a legal way to fight for what I want?

    All very difficult questions! Thanks for bringing them up.

  7. Excellent points, all. Tammy, I particularly like your re-framing of the problem. It helped me look at the situation from another angle. Maybe it's not as simple as giving people the right to let nature take it's course.

    Truthfully, I think this is one of those "no good answer" kind of situations. Every single choice has adverse effects. No one choice is the simply, obvious, easy answer. And because the involved person is a minor, his thoughts and opinions don't count for much in a court of law.

    Tough stuff.

    For those who are interested, a slightly similar case if being prosecuted in WI right now. A Mom and Dad have been charged in the death of their daughter from diabetes. Instead of seeking medical help, they prayed.
    If you want a link, let me know and I'll post it later.