Reason.com defends the medical neglect of Sarah Hershberger

I realize that some of my readers will chide me for saying this, but I usually expect better of Reason. Although I sometimes have a tendency to be a bit—shall we say?—Insolent about libertarians when they pass from a reasonable defense of civil liberties into an Ayn Rand-inspired fantasy world in which the market cures all, useless people keep the supermen (and women) down, and the government is virtually unnecessary, I’ve usually considered Reason.com to represent a fairly—if you’ll excuse the word—reasonable variety of libertarianism. For instance, Ronald Bailey actually once presented what he called a pragmatic argument for coercive vaccination. Unfortunately, this time around, Reason.com has gone totally off the deep end when it comes to “health freedom,” presenting arguments, in essence, for the death of an Amish girl whose family has refused to complete her chemotherapy for a deadly childhood malignancy because, in a nutshell, parental rights must rule supreme. If you wonder whether I’m being too harsh on Reason.com and Tracy Oppenheimer, who, apparently, is responsible for this medical atrocity, read on.

Sarah Hershberger, as regular readers will recall, is an 11-year-old Amish girl from northeast Ohio, an area of the country with which I am well familiar, having spent eight years in Cleveland doing my residency and obtaining my PhD, who was diagnosed last year with lymphoblastic leukemia. She underwent one full course of chemotherapy (out of five courses planned over more than two years), which is the standard of care for the particular variety of leukemia she has. Unfortunately, her family stopped her chemotherapy early in her second course, after the induction phase had been completed, but only a dose or two into her consolidation phase. The reason this is so dangerous, as I’ve explained before, is that recurrence rates are very high after just the induction phase. Without the four other phases of chemotherapy required for this malignancy, there’s a high probability that her leukemia will recur, and when it recurs it will be a more resistant variety, having already been “selected” with one course of chemotherapy. Might she “get away with” only one phase of her chemotherapy? It’s possible, but very unlikely, and, given that full course treatment results in long term survival rates upwards of 85%, not completing the full five phases of chemotherapy is very much endangering this child.

In response to this understandable (given that Sarah was suffering side effects) but profoundly dangerous (to Sarah) action, Akron Children’s Hospital did a highly admirable thing. It brought legal action to appoint a guardian for purposes of medical decision making. This decision led to the Hershbergers fleeing Ohio in order to subject Sarah to quackery. Meanwhile quacks everywhere were furiously spinning, claiming that “natural healing” techniques that the Hershbergers had sought out had rendered her disease free. Most recently, I sadly and reluctantly concluded that Sarah was probably doomed, as the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, headed up by a crank named Maurice Thompson, had taken the case. When last I left the case, Sarah Hershberger apparently had come home to die. (I realize that that’s not what Thompson and the Hersbhergers were saying, and certainly that’s not what supporters of quackery were admitting, but I had my rasons for concluding it.) Throughout it all, I contended (and still contend) that those arguing for the right of the Hershberger family to deny Sarah lifesaving treatment for a highly curable cancer (85% five year survival) cared far more for “parental rights” than they did about the rights of Sarah Hershberger to live. Currently, as I’ve discussed before, Sarah’s medical guardian, Maria Schimer, resigned. Apparently the court didn’t accept her resignation until March 4, and currently her medical guardian is Judge Kevin Dunn. (I can’t link to the source right now because it’s down.) What will happen next is anyone’s guess.

Tracy Oppenheimer’s brain dead video piece on Reason.com, in which she lets Maurice Thompson advocate for parental rights above all, even if it means the “freedom” for the Hershbergers to let Sarah die a horrific death from leukemia, is entitled Amish vs. the Courts: Family Speaks Out on Fleeing the U.S. to Save Daughter from Court-Mandated Chemo. I don’t recall recently having seen such a one-sided piece about the Hershbergers outside of the usual sources, such as It’s truly painful to watch, as it basically argues that parental rights trump all:

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Try not to facepalm too many times when Thompson is speaking. I had a deep hand print on my face, so epic were the facepalms. I should sue Thompson for emotional distress due to flaming stupidity burned into my brain.

Part of the reason I had to blog about this is that the video reveals some things that hadn’t yet been revealed. For instance, featured in the video is a woman described as “health practitioner Angela Lowther. Lowther is an ND; i.e., a naturopath, or, as I like to call the Not a Doctor. It didn’t take much Google-Fu to find her at the Seeds of Wellness clinic in Avon Lake, OH, where she is described thusly:

Angela has owned Healthy Balance Wellness Center since 2008 and has been in practice as a natural health practitioner since 2005 starting out in California.

She is a Doctor of Natural Medicine (ND), Certified Natural Health Practitioner (CNHP), D.PSc – Diplomate of Pastoral Science for PMA and a licensed health provider for PMA, Veterinary Aide, Digital Health Specialist (QBS) – Quantum Biofeedback Specialist, a Digestive Care Specialist for Advanced Naturals, an Independent Consultant for doTerra Essential Oils and Certified AromaTouch Technician for doTerra.

Quantum Biofeedback Specialist? Essential oils? AromaTouch? Those modalities are some serious quackery there. I also note that Lowther’s partners at the clinic where she works includes Rev. Pat Beers, a psychic, medium, clairvoyant, and psychometrist (described as someone who “uses your objects to pick up vibrations”), while also claiming to be able to communicate with animals. Completing the team is Rev. Donna Bretz, who is described as a psychic reader, Reiki Master, Hypnotherapist and ordained Minister. She’s also described as an intuitive empath and uses Angel Cards and Oracle Cards to “help her connect with her Spirit People to receive the answers you seek.”

This is the practitioner to whom the Hershbergers turned to help their daughter get through chemotherapy? No wonder it didn’t take too much for them to be willing to stop treatment, particularly given that one of Sarah’s relatives, LeRoy Keim, is a multilevel marketer for a “natural” weight loss system known as Zija. One can only wonder what nonsense Lowther was filling their heads with. Of course, the Hershbergers must have been susceptible to the nonsense, given that they took Sarah to Lowther in the first place. Meanwhile, in Oppeheimer’s piece, Lowther is allowed to blather on about how natural remedies “boost the immune system” (really, she actually said that at around 2:10 in the video). She also told Oppenheimer that Sarah’s doctors weren’t open to considering any natural supplements. Well, of course they weren’t! They were focused on using science-based medicine to provide Sarah with the best chance that they could possibly give her of surviving her cancer and living to a ripe old age and likely didn’t need to be worrying about whether this herb or this supplement might be interacting or interfering with Sarah’s chemotherapy and other drugs.

We also learn that the Hershbergers were in Mexico, having taken a three and a half day journey from Ohio. The clinic in Mexico where Sarah was treated is not revealed, but unfortunately there are many to choose from, particularly in Tijuana but not limited to Tijuana. The Mexican border is long, and Mexico is a big country. Oppenheimer writes that the Hershbergers wouldn’t provide details of Sarah’s “alternative” treatments, but that information is readily available if she had bothered to do one bit of research for her piece. I noted it months ago in an anti-chemotherapy piece written by David Augenstein:

Andy explained in general terms some of the treatment and nutritional supplements, including high doses of vitamin C and B17, oxygen therapy, detoxification methods, as well as the IV chelation to deliver some of these to Sarah’s bloodstream. He also explained how the doctors arrived at a cancer-free status. She is now on a special diet including lots of vegetables and raw foods and taking special natural supplements, as prescribed by the foreign doctors.

Funny how I found this so easily, and Oppenheimer did not. Funny how also no one is presented to point out that high dose vitamin C for cancer doesn’t work, that B17 (laetrile) is cancer quackery that was discredited 30 years ago, and that “detoxification” and chelation are among the most nonsensical of quackeries aside from the ones that are, like Reiki and therapeutic touch, essentially magical faith healing. What Oppenheimer is doing in her piece is promoting the ability of parents to withhold effective medical treatment in favor of quackery. One wonders if she would have taken the same tack if she knew that the “natural remedies” that Sarah’s parents have chosen include laetrile. Given the ideological bent of this piece, my guess is that it wouldn’t have made a difference. What’s the life of a child compared to…FREEEDOMMMM!

The video starts out with Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, a dubious far right advocacy group, opining that “Having a free society means that people need to be free to take risks, including risks with their family, when they are suitable and loving parents.” Thompson got half of that right. If he had simply said that having a free society means that people need to be free to take risks, I’d have no problem with that. Competent adults should be free to take risks, and I’ve always said that competent adults can choose whatever treatment they want for themselves, be it science-based or quackery. The key phrase in that sentence is “for themselves.” Children are not considered competent to make such decisions for themselves, and we don’t let them. We can argue about what age children become sufficiently competent to make such decisions, but few would argue that an 11 or 12 year old is competent to make health decisions like deciding whether to do chemotherapy or not. That’s the parents’ job.

So far, so good. But what happens when the parents fail, which is what is happening now? Thompson and Oppenheimer spend lots of time in the video portraying the Hershbergers as loving “suitable” (legal language) parents. That’s a total straw man argument. Thompson also says:

It’s one thing for society, government, for experts to overrule parents who are abusive, or who are neglectful or who perhaps lack the capacity to properly care for their children, and it’s imperative to emphasize that none of those are the case here.

No one—and I mean, no one—is saying that the Hershbergers aren’t loving parents. I certainly have no doubt that the Hershbergers love their daughter as much as any parents can love their child. I also have no doubt that they think they are doing the right thing for her. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t recognize good intentions. These parents are making a profoundly harmful choice for their daughter, one that is very likely to prevent her from ever seeing adulthood. As I said before, she might luck out, and the chemotherapy that she’s received thus far might be enough, but it’s far more likely that it is not and that her cancer will recur. Considerable time is taken in the video, with Lowther, Sarah’s parents, and Thompson all gushing over how normal and “energetic” Sarah is right now. Oppenheimer cheerily adds to the illusion by narrating herself how fantastic Sarah looks. That’s totally a red herring that has no bearing on why she needs more chemotherapy. She might well seem perfectly fine now, but sooner or later her cancer will almost certainly recur. In the meantime, she’s being treated with quackery like laetrile. That is why, contrary to what Thompson is arguing, the reality is that the Hershbergers are abusive and neglectful. When parents, no matter how well-intentioned, medically neglect their children—and, make no mistake, Sarah Hershberger is a blatant case of medical neglect—it is right and just for society to step in. Medical neglect is abuse, parental intentions notwithstanding.

Arguments like Thompson’s piss me off to no end, because they basically devalue the life of the child and are rooted in the attitude that parental “rights” always trump the good of the child, at least as long as the parents look like nice, fine upstanding citizens. It’s why parents whose children die because they choose prayer over medicine are rarely severely punished in this country. What the Hershbergers are doing to Sarah is no different from that.

Tragically, this video makes it very clear that the Hershbergers were laboring under a delusion. They clearly don’t understand what is at stake. At one point in the video Thompson mentions that the Hershbergers decided to try “natural” treatments, with the belief that they could always go back to chemotherapy if the “natural” therapy failed. On the surface, this seems reasonable enough, but it’s based on a massive misunderstanding of cancer biology. What the Hershbergers don’t seem to understand (and what Oppenheimer doesn’t acknowledge) is that when Sarah’s cancer returns, it will be much harder to treat and far more likely to kill her, no matter what the pediatric oncologists at Akron Children’s Hospital (or any other pediatric cancer center) throw at her. The first chance is virtually always the best chance to cure any cancer, and the Hershbergers are wasting that chance. When Sarah’s cancer returns, oncologists might still be able to save her, but the odds of that will go down considerably.

Thompson also makes a very deceptive argument, pointing out that chemotherapy has significant risks, including infertility, secondary cancers, and even death. One notes that he mentions death first and very prominently. Sure, chemotherapy has significant risks. However, those risks pale in comparison to the risks of what the Hershbergers are doing now. The risk of death due to chemotherapy is much, much lower than the risk of death from cancer, and if you’re a child with cancer you won’t even have the risk of secondary malignancies and infertility of the cancer isn’t cured with appropriate treatment, mainly because you’ll die long before such chemotherapy-associated complications have the opportunity to manifest themselves.

The bottom line is this. The Hershbergers, as nice as they might be and as much as they might love Sarah, are letting her die, and her death will likely be very unpleasant. The State of Ohio and Medina County have profoundly failed in protecting Sarah from this, and far too many people are okay with this, out of a misguided fear of “trampling parental rights.” Maurice Thompson, through his advocacy of parental rights above all else, is complicit in the medical neglect being perpetrated by the Hershbergers. Worse, he’s trying to generalize it to all children, and if he prevails it will be open season on children for cancer quacks in Ohio. Reason should know better than to provide a propaganda organ for the misguided libertarians trying to defend parents who are medically neglecting their children.