Children are not their parents’ property

Yesterday’s post about Sarah Hershberger, the Amish girl from northeast Ohio with lymphoblastic lymphoma who refused chemotherapy, prompting a court battle that led to the appointment of a medical guardian for her to make sure she receives treatment, got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing). Actually, I had to think back over the years about all the similar cases of unfortunate children with cancer whose misfortune was compounded by having been born to woo-loving parents, such as Daniel Hauser.

These stories are depressingly similar, as are the arguments that go on over them. First, a child develops cancer. That child starts chemotherapy and does well initially. Then, the child develops side effects. The parents react quite understandably, becoming alarmed at their child’s suffering. However, because of a tendency towards magical thinking they can’t seem to see the big picture. So they stop the chemotherapy and pursue quackery. Sometimes, thinking that their child’s tumor is gone because it is no longer detectable after a cycle or two (or three) of chemotherapy, they think their child doesn’t need any more chemotherapy. They don’t understand (or accept) the rationale for consolidation and maintenance chemotherapy that lead most chemotherapy regimens for childhood malignancies to be at least two years long. They don’t understand that by stopping therapy so early they are greatly increasing the chances that their child’s cancer will return.

Other aspects of these stories are maddeningly similar. Usually what happens next is that either the hospital or the state’s child protective services go to court to make sure that the child receives proper cancer care. What follows is then usually a court battle in which the parents and their allies (and, yes, they always find allies) portray the hospital and child protective services as fascistic tools of big government doing the will of big pharma to torture an innocent child. I only exaggerate a little. Actually, no, I am not exaggerating at all. In the uncommon case in which the court actually rules that the child must undergo treatment, it is not uncommon for the parents to flee with the child. We’ve seen it with Daniel Hauser; we’ve seen it with Abraham Cherrix and Katie Wernecke; and we now see it with Sarah Hershberger, whose father is said to have taken her out of the country to avoid her receiving chemotherapy.

It is this demonization of medical professionals and case workers trying to do the right thing that reveals a very disturbing aspect of the American psyche, and that’s the attitude that children are property and parents’ rights trump the well-being of the child. For example, take a look at this comment from a commenter by the ‘nym of H323:

All of this is caused by the general rejection of Judeo-Christian values. The Bible if very clear that children are a gift from God our Creator to the parents. They are God’s and God has given them to parents as stewards. The Bible leaves no room for the state to have custody of children! I am Mennonite and of the same Anabaptist faith as the Amish. The Amish and Mennonites will simply not accept a socialistic government that takes custody of it’s children and hands them over to a medical system that has little regard for human life (abortion services are considered a medical service.) If we have too, we will leave this country before we accept this type of horror. When the mother wants to kill, the state grants the choice to the mother. When the mother wants to make cancer treatment choices, the state takes the choice from the mother! The cause for this is a society that has no regard for the Word of the Lord.

Then if you go to the Akron Children’s Hospital Facebook page, you’ll find comments like this one by a man named John Strangis (whose YouTube channel is chock full of HIV/AIDS denialism and videos on chemtrails), who writes on the ACH Facebook page:

Looks like the family won and the girl recovered with NATURAL TREATMENTS regardless of your efforts to force her into something which went against the wishes of her parents.

Then someone by the name of Elect Sys writes:

The Lord has given parents custody of children–not the state or worse yet someone who has a conflict of interest with the parents such as Akron Hospital. Flee the place at all cost!

Here’s someone named Madison Treiber:

THIS HOSPITAL IS VIOLATING HUMAN RIGHTS!!!! They are forcefully administering chemotherapy to a child who does not wish to be treated with such a method. Her parents are being legally required to allow this treatment that they, nor their daughter support.

This hospital, in conjunction with the Ohio court, are violating human rights. They are legally mandating what this girl do her body! It is not their choice. What sort of a country do we live in if the courts can decide how we treat our ailments?? They are robbing this child and her family of their freedoms. There are so many other options in treating cancer, and everyone should be able to pursue the treatments THEY prefer, not be legally required to do what the state thinks is best.

Do not support this appalling institution.

Funny how Ms. Treiber doesn’t seem to consider endangering the life of a child by withholding potentially life-saving treatment to be a violation of human rights. If you scroll back to the early part of October on the posts on the ACH Facebook page, which is around the time the ruling that Sarah Hershberger should undergo chemotherapy was handed down, you’ll find screed after screed after screed castigating ACH using similar arguments. They all boil down to outrage that any entity, be it the hospital, the courts, child protective services, or any other agency of the government, would dare to interfere with the parents’ absolute right (in their view) to care for their children the way that they see fit. It doesn’t matter that the parents are endangering Sarah Hershberger’s life by withholding the only treatment that can save her in favor of “natural healing” that can’t. While many commenters try to argue that this “natural healing” will work better than chemotherapy, more than a few of them seem to realize deep down that it won’t. They’ll qualify their statement by saying that the parent has the “right to choose” what is “best” for their child even if it’s clearly not, even as they express outrage that the state would try to intervene in the best interests of the child.

This belief that parental rights over their children are absolute and inviolate is not only common, but it takes some insidious forms, particularly when the abuse of children is based on religion. Given the strong tradition of religious freedom in this country that is inscribed in our very Constitution, it is understandable that people don’t want the government telling them how to practice their religion or interfering with their religion. However, as with all rights, the parents’ right to raise their children as they see fit has to be balanced with the rights of the child to life. When the exercise of a parents’ religion endangers the life of a child, the life of the child takes precedence—or should. It doesn’t always. It’s rare that parents who deny their children medical care suffer any penalty. (It does happen occasionally, but cases like this are rare.) Indeed, so much do government authorities bend over backward to respect parental rights that it is possible for parents who let one child die of pneumonia untreated because they believed Jesus would heal him retain custody of the rest of their children so that they could do it again and let a second child die.

We see this particular attitude among antivaccinationists as well. For instance, just the other day, the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism published a little screed by someone named Dr. Karol Osborne entitled Concerns: UN Convention on Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Noting that the U.S. Senate has not yet ratified this treaty, Osborne is disturbed by reports that there is going to be another push to ratify this treaty, and that supporters of the treaty will try to “push it through very quickly.” Here’s the bug that’s up her posterior about this treaty:

This document is concerning on many fronts, but I believe it should be particularly concerning to any parent of a vaccine injured child, or really to anyone concerned about the skyrocketing incidence of autism (as well as a plethora of other serious chronic diseases) in our youth, and a potential link to vaccinations. The fundamental concern with this document is its adoption of the “best interests of the child” standard. With this change in language, courts and government agencies (rather than parents) would be given the authority to decide what is best for children with disabilities. This would come into play with choices about future vaccinations for autistic (and all disabled) children, decisions about medical treatments for autistic (and all disabled) children and school/educational choices.

Yes, you read that correctly. Osborne is upset because this treaty would adopt a standard that is based on the “best interests of the child,” and she fears that such a standard might interfere with the ability of antivaccine parents not to vaccinate. She also fears (with far more justification) that such a standard would make it far more difficult for antivaccine parents to subject their children to “autism biomed” quackery such as when Kent Heckenlively subjected his daughter to bogus “stem cell” treatments in Costa Rica or when parents risk the lives of their children by subjecting them to quackery like the Lupron protocol or chelation therapy.

According to Osborne, this is just the beginning:

The CRPD is just the first arm of the “1-2 punch” that is being planned. The second arm will then be ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Once the language is changed to the “best interests of the child” in the CRPD, this will grease the way to ratify the UN CRC, which, of course, is grounded in the same fundamental shift in language and approach to all of the children in the U.S., not just the disabled. Political leaders are leading with the CRPD, I believe, because they feel it stands a better chance at ratification, because parents of the disabled (busy caring for their disabled children) will not have the time to stand up against these plans.

What bothers Osborne so much is this:

What is at the crux of this is who determines what is in the “best interests of the child”? Historically, unless proven to be negligent or abusive, this authority has always rested with U.S. parents. With ratification of these two documents above, this authority will be transferred to the U.S. Government, and its health institutions (when it involves medical and health matters).

If you read the actual text of the convention, it’s nowhere near as ominous as people like Osborne try to paint it. Article 5, for instance, states that “States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.” I will say that parts of the document strike me as a bit utopian, but not any horrific threat to parental authority.

I actually do understand to some extent how parents might take a dim view of too much government interference in how they raise their children, particularly if government views conflict with cultural views. I also recognize that there are gray areas, where it’s not clear whose vision of the best interests of the child should prevail. I am not talking about such gray areas. I’m referring to how an utter insistence the inviolability of parental rights leads to children being harmed, even dying. It’s an insistence that has led to a Proposed Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would essentially neuter the government with respect to protecting children from parental medical neglect or mistreatment. No wonder antivaccinationists like it.

It’s about more than just antivaccinationists, though. This deference to parental rights over the health of the child plays out again and again and again in these chemotherapy “refusenik” stories. Abraham Cherrix and Katie Wernecke? Their parents ran away with them. Daniel Hauser? Same thing. Now it’s Sarah Hershberger. The fact is that no one wants to take a child away from her parents, and no hospital wants to, either, the rants about big pharma profiteering as a motive for crushing parental prerogatives notwithstanding. In the case of ACH, the easiest course of action would have been for the doctors there to shrug their shoulders and mourn the lost of another child to superstition. It didn’t. It tried to stand up to defend the best interests of the child, the best interests of Sarah Hershberger.