At what point is a refusal to treat your child’s cancer with traditional chemotherapy medical neglect? Just how far does a family’s personal religious freedoms extend?
Minnesota Judge John Rodenberg grappled with these exact issues, ruling Friday that a family’s refusal to treat their son’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma with chemotherapy amounted to medical neglect. The Judge ordered the 13 year-old to be evaluated by a doctor to determine if the boy would benefit from chemotherapy treatments, over the objections of the boy’s parents. The family has until Tuesday to seek additional evaluations. If the tests show that the cancer has advanced to the point where chemotherapy and radiation would be futile, then the Court would not order treatment. However, if the tests show that chemotherapy and radiation would help the boy, and if the parents continued to refuse treatment, the boy would be placed under the care of child protective services, although it is not at all clear how Court-ordered medical treatment would proceed.
The Minnesota case illustrates just how difficult these kinds of religious exercise cases can be. We witnessed the absurd politicization of Terri Schiavo’s last days, with politicians who were not treating physicians but happened to be medical doctors making pronouncements on her care. Shiavo’s case became a cause celebre for the right-to-life movement, yet that same advocacy group has so far been unusually quiet regarding the Minnesota case.
Why is that? If pro-life groups consider it murder to remove the life support of a woman who spent seven years in a persistent vegetative state, what about these parents who refuse a medical treatment that the treating physicians believe have about a 90 percent chance of curing their son’s cancer because it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs?
The reality is both families made essentially the same argument, that is, that they, and not the government, should have the right to make personal, critical, and important medical decisions for themselves and their family members. Though they cite two separate sources for that right, in the Schiavo case it was the right to privacy, and in the Minnesota case, the right to exercise their religious beliefs as they saw fit, both families wanted the privacy and dignity to make a painful decision without the interference of the government. Both families should have that right, regardless if it is a privacy right or a religious exercise right, and the pro-life movement should recognize that right, regardless of source. Of course to do so would to cede ground on the intellectual and Constitutional underpinnings of Roe v. Wade.
The Minnesota case is a real tragedy. A family struggles with making life and death decisions concerning their child and have essentially had the ability of to make those decisions abdicated by the Court. Judge Rodenberg deserves a lot of credit for trying to come to a practical, compassionate, and just ruling. However the case remains a lesson in just how hard it is to balance individual freedoms when the result inevitably ends in death.
photo courtesy of TheNickster via Flickr