A Child’s Choice?
I woke up this morning to an appalling article in the local paper.
Daniel Hauser has what doctors consider one of the most curable types of cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
But the 13-year-old from Sleepy Eye, Minn. and his parents don’t want him to have chemotherapy and radiation, the standard treatments. For the past three months, they have ignored the advice of his cancer specialists and turned to natural therapies, such as herbs and vitamins, instead.
Yes, it’s partly appalling because a child will probably die if no one can intervene. Danny’s parents are demonstrating one of the great dangers of belief in medical woo–the abandonment of proven, effective, life-saving treatments. I’d say more about it, but unlike some people who get more eloquent in the face of this kind of outrage, I mostly sputter. I’ll leave that part to the experts.
Aside from the criminal stupidity of the parents, it’s also appalling that the paper was reporting on the child’s wishes as though they matter in this situation.
Daniel, one of eight children, has asserted that treatment would violate his religious beliefs. The teenager filed an affidavit saying that he is a medicine man and church elder in the Nemenhah, an American Indian religious organization that his parents joined 18 years ago (though they don’t claim to be Indians).
“I am opposed to chemotherapy because it is self-destructive and poisonous,” he told the court. “I want to live a virtuous life, in the eyes of my creator, not just a long life.” He also filed a “spiritual path declaration” that said: “I am a medicine man. Some times we teach, and some times we perform. Now, I am doing both. I will lead by example.”
Right. May I remind you that he’s thirteen? This is the point in life when kids tell you they want to grow up to be professional wrestlers, when their best friends are determined by age and physical proximity instead of any real affinity, when they may or may not be old enough to be left alone for long stretches without a babysitter. We don’t let thirteen-year-olds drink, vote or drive. We don’t even let them set their own bedtime on school nights.
Why is anyone asking this child his opinion of decisions that will affect his health, much less his life expectancy?
For that matter, where is the news in the fact that Danny agrees with his parents? They’re his parents. Stereotypes of rebellious teenagers aside, Danny is at an age where kids are just starting to develop opinions separate from their parents’ on any topic of greater importance than eating vegetables.
Even realizing that denying proper medical care to one’s children is child abuse (which it is), there’s no reason to expect that Daniel would disagree with his parents. If part of the abuse involves keeping the child isolated (which it typically does), kids don’t want to upset the stability of any part of their tiny worlds. Plus, it’s bad enough being abused; kids don’t want anyone else to know that someone treats them that badly.
For that matter, kids are notorious for indulging in magical thinking. They will deny anything, even their own hands caught in the cookie jar, if they don’t like the implications. Admitting abuse, even to themselves, makes it more real.
And with magical thinking, we come to the question of Daniel’s religious beliefs. Our society does habitually treat kids his age as being competent to choose their own religion. It’s the age of confirmation, taking one’s parents’ religion as one’s own. But should it be?
I remember being thirteen, when most of my friends were taking their confirmation classes, and being appalled. I didn’t grow up religious, so the traditions and expectations were alien to me, but I understood that people took religion very seriously. Consequently, I was horrified that people my age were being asked to make a decision that momentous, with implications for the rest of their lives. We were just kids. No class was going to prepare us for that!
Now, of course, I understand that part of the point is to have that commitment made before abstract thinking and reasoning really kick in, but that only underscores the irrelevance of Danny’s religion. Is he old enough to understand the implications of the fact that the Nemenhah website talks almost exclusively about donations and freedom from government interference? Can he comprehend why there might be something odd in a group that embraces “Native American” spirituality and “traditional healing” but whose members appear to be almost exclusively of European descent? Is he in a position to evaluate the critiques of the group?
No, he’s not. He’s not even old enough to endure the testimony about his chances of survival with and without treatment.
I’m sorry, Danny, but that’s why what you want matters not at all right now. This isn’t your decision to make. You’ll be old enough to understand that someday, assuming someone steps up and makes sure you live that long.
This entry was posted on Friday, May 8th, 2009 at 10:23 am and is filed under Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.