Many of you out there have probably heard about the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old who was recently ordered to receive chemotherapy for his cancer, instead of sticking to “alternative” treatments like a special diet, vitamins, and ionized water. At the moment of this writing, he and his mother are on the run to avoid the chemo and deal with the cancer their own way. (Look at me! I’m writing something that’s actually current! This must be what being a journalist feels like!)
I could focus on criticizing their choice of treatment, but I’m not going to (beyond this paragraph). It should be obvious to most of us that this family has bought into some crazy, dangerous nonsense. This is a perfect example of why “alternative medicine” is dangerous: not because most of it is completely worthless, but because it causes people to forego real, scientifically-proven medical treatments.
The bigger issue here is whether it’s ok for the government to step in and choose someone’s medical treatment, and how far we as a society should allow someone’s faith and beliefs to go, and whether society as a whole has any say at all. Essentially, the question is: should we let Daniel Hauser die?
Further, I think it’s hard to discuss this issue without also bringing up another case that’s also relevant: the Terri Schiavo case. Both Hauser and Schiavo have been the subjects of litigation to determine their fates, though obviously with very different aims and outcomes (so far).
In Schiavo’s case, the courts became involved to determine whether her husband had the right to end her life. In Hauser’s case, they had to determine whether his parents have the right to take a course of action that will cause his death. In both cases, things would be much simpler if the subject of the litigation were capable of choosing for themselves, but in both cases, they’re not. Schiavo was braindead, and Hauser is a minor, and has been thoroughly brainwashed by his parents and the cult they’re in.
The libertarian in me says that the courts/government should have absolutely no say in these matters, and that people should be free to choose any course of action that they like, even if it ultimately leads to death. But the liberal side of me says that we need to try to save the sick and helpless, even if it’s from their own bad decisions, perhaps especially from their own bad decisions. In Schiavo’s case, the libertarian side seems right; she was effectively dead already, so there was no point in keeping her hooked up. I don’t think even my liberal side would try to argue that there’d be any point in keeping her alive. (I don’t seem to have a conservative side.)
However, in Hauser’s case, my liberal side seems much more relevant. While I’m uneasy at the idea that the government has stepped in to make a decision on this boy’s fate, I think it’s more or less a good decision. He shouldn’t have to suffer and die because his parents believe in nonsense. But where do you draw the line? Do parents have a right to refuse treatments that conflict with their beliefs if that means their kid will die?
There are countless cases of parents and relatives unwittingly allowing their children and loved ones to die or suffer serious injury because of their adherence to one worthless treatment or another. What’sTheHarm.net is a great resource for looking into such things. In many cases, those same parents & relatives have been prosecuted for criminal negligence and even homicide.
And then, there’s religion. A fairly well-known example of misguided faith is the case of Madeline Kara Neumann, an 11-year-old with diabetes whose parents prayed over her instead of getting her proper medical treatment for her diabetes. She died from untreated diabetes.
Whether or not you believe in a god, I think the evidence is quite clear that praying for God to save you isn’t going to do anything. It’s fine if someone prays for a friend who’s battling cancer (as long as they’re receiving treatment too) or prays for general good health. That’s ok, and it may even be a little bit helpful, if only for the placebo effect that positive thinking can bring. But even most firm believers in a particular deity don’t really seem to expect prayer to work in any tangible capacity, or at least not subconsciously. Nobody expects God to regrow their amputated limbs, or cure their birth defects.
I also should point out that I’m not trying to say that scientific medicine is perfect. It’s clearly not, and there are plenty of side-effects to even the most effective treatments. However, it’s backed up by evidence of its effectiveness, whereas alternative treatments almost never are. As the old joke goes, what do you call alternative medicine that actually works? Medicine.
And chemotherapy certainly isn’t a picnic. I only know about the basics – hair falling out, constant feelings of sickness, aching – but surely it’s better than slowly dying of untreated cancer.
Getting back to Hauser’s case, having the government step in and force the kid to get treated is somewhat disconcerting, but in this case it’s a good thing. Will such action be necessary in the future? Probably. And who’s to stop the government from expanding its influence in medical decisions to impose its will when it’s not necessary? Well, us. Citizen activism, I guess. Going forward, we’ve got to be vigilant, and always keep an eye on what the government is doing. This is why it’s so important to have transparency in government, and open digital recordkeeping of everything the government does. And such things will be far, far more important if we ever get around to implementing some form of universal health care.
But Daniel Hauser isn’t out of the woods yet. He and his mother are suspected to be heading to Tijuana, which is sort of a Mecca for alternative nonsense. Hopefully the police will find them before the mother is able to subject her son to something that’ll cause real harm.
Well, let’s see if I’ve provoked the wrath of the alt-med community with this one, like I did with my previous post on the anti-vaccinationists.
Update (5/29/2010): In case you haven’t heard by now (and it’s been a while), here’s how this story turned out: Daniel returned home, went on chemo, and is now more or less completely recovered.
Unfortunately, now his father has cancer. I guess it runs in the family. Sounds like a pretty nasty form of leukemia with a 50% remission rate, if he gets proper treatment. Fortunately he says he’s not ruling out chemo, but for now he’s trying some bullshit natural diet that he and his wife came up with.
I sure hope he comes around before it’s too late.Tags: government, health, medicine, politics, religion, science, skepticism, society
This post was written by Bevans