On August 27, 2013, an Ohio appellate court ruled that a county judge must reconsider a decision made that would not allow Akron Children’s Hospital to appoint an attorney/registered nurse as a medical guardian over Sarah Hershberger. The child in question is a 10-year-old Amish girl suffering from leukemia. The Hershbergers, like many Amish families, shun most modern conveniences to live more simple, religion-oriented lives.
When Sarah became very sick after treatments, she asked her parents to stop the chemotherapy and they agreed after much prayer. Andy Hershberger, Sarah’s father, stated that the family believes “to a certain extent, [they] can use modern medicine, but at some times [they] have to stop it and do something else.” After hearing of the family’s decision to stop treatment and turn to natural remedies and God’s will, the Akron Children’s Hospital stated that Sarah’s cancer was very treatable and pointed out that they had already seen a reduction in her tumors after some chemotherapy. Doctors at the hospital also stated that Sarah would have an 85% chance of survival with treatment, and predicted that she would die if she did not continue.
The original decision handed down by a county judge in Medina, Ohio stated that Sarah’s parents had the right to make decisions for her because of her status as a minor and because they were not deemed to be unfit parents. The appeals court ruling, in contrast, agreed with the hospital, and said “the judge failed to consider whether appointing a guardian would be in the girl’s best interest” and that parents did not have to be unsuitable for a guardian to be appointed. The case was then sent back to the county court for reconsideration.
Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Americans are guaranteed the free exercise of religion, though exceptions to this rule can be made when religious practices conflict with other laws and rulings in place. Certain parental rights have also traditionally been guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The issue at stake in this case is whether religious freedoms and parental rights over minors can be trumped by the need for medical care.
The case of the Hershberger family is a little different from other cases of this nature and enters into more of a gray area because Sarah’s parents did not refuse outright to get Sarah treatment. The family sought chemotherapy, saw that it was hurting Sarah, and decided to stop, in part because of their religious beliefs. Although the family has turned to natural remedies and God’s will after stopping chemotherapy, they have not ruled out returning to the hospital if Sarah’s condition worsens, complicating this case even more. The appellate court’s decision not to affirm the ruling in favor of the parents, and the injunction they issued that ordered Sarah’s treatments to resume immediately, make room for more cases that limit both the freedom to make decisions based on religion and parental rights over children, especially because of the gray areas present this case.
I think it often feels easy to suspend people’s religious rights when a child’s life is at stake and easy to say that parents are entitled to their religious beliefs until their children are put in danger. For people outside the faith, I also think it can be difficult to understand such ingrained beliefs and someone’s willingness to endanger a child’s life, especially since most Americans will never have to choose between deep religious views and life-saving medical treatment.
Recognizing such tendencies to restrict religious freedoms, I do still agree with the Ohio appellate court that the county court should reconsider its decision not to appoint an attorney/registered nurse to be a limited guardian for Sarah Hershberger. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling in Prince v. Massachusetts, Justice Rutledge, writing for the majority, stated that parents “may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.” This precedent has held in subsequent cases.
Refusing medical treatment for yourself is one thing, but using your religious beliefs to make an important life decision for another person who has not had the time or experience to develop and determine their own religious beliefs is not right. The Supreme Court did rule in favor of Amish parents in Wisconsin v. Yoder when they decided that Amish children could not be required to stay in school past eighth grade because it conflicted with their religious beliefs and simple way of life. Although I believe parental rights should be viewed strongly, I do not think parents have an absolute right to refuse medical treatment for their children based on religious grounds. I also agree with the majority decision in Prince that the right to exercise religion freely does not include “the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” I think Sarah Hershberger and her family should consult the medical guardian and at least finish out the recommended two rounds of chemotherapy. In this case, the preservation of the child’s life is paramount.
What do you think? Is this a special case? Do you agree with the county court or the appellate court?