As police in Minnesota continued to search for a mother who went on the run after a court ordered her to turn her son over for chemotherapy treatment, religious and legal experts say the case pits freedom of religion and parental rights against laws that protect minors.
Authorities said Colleen Hauser and her son, Daniel, 13, who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have been spotted in Southern California and may be headed to Mexico. They apparently fled after a doctor’s appointment in Minnesota on Monday. Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg ruled that Mrs. Hauser is in contempt of his order that Daniel receive additional chemotherapy for his highly treatable form of cancer.
Mrs. Hauser and her husband, Anthony, both Roman Catholics, practice an American Indian religious tradition of the Nemenhah Band, which embraces natural healing remedies and a “do no harm” philosophy.
Their beliefs have prompted the family to refuse to have the boy [Note] s tumor [/NOTE] treated medically after he took one round of chemotherapy in January, which shrunk the cancerous tumor. But when new X-rays showed the tumor had grown, the judge ordered that Daniel, who is learning-disabled and cannot read, be put into foster care and evaluated by cancer specialists for future treatment.
Shawn Francis Peters, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who teaches about religion and the law, said these cases are difficult for all sides because they involve value disputes over what the term “best interests of the child” means.
“The great irony in these cases is that everyone involved thinks they are acting in the best interest of the child,” said Mr. Peters, the author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law.”
“We like to think of the law as being a solution, but that isn’t the way it works with faith. Oftentimes, parents don’t really care about secular law because they are more concerned with scriptural and biblical law. That’s the conundrum.”
In Wisconsin, he added, legal and religious experts are watching the case of Kara Neumann, an 11-year-old who died after her parents chose to treat her diabetic ketoacidosis condition with prayer. Her parents are facing trials on reckless-endangerment charges, which could earn them up to 25 years in prison for following what they have said is their constitutional right to religious freedom.
The judge in the case, in ordering Leilani and Dale Neumann to stand trial, wrote: “The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief but not necessarily conduct.”
Although some see the matter as one of freedom of religion, others view it as child abuse, as jurisdictions around the nation grapple with the law and what protections should be afforded parents who embrace faith healing, specialists said.
Denver health care lawyer Gregory Piche noted that although “the state has the responsibility to step in and do the right thing in these circumstances,” a case like this is “a difficult thing to prosecute” because “typically, the people involved are not what we would normally think of as criminals.”
State laws, he said, are “all over the map” as they grapple with a growing number of cases, including two cases in Oregon where parents are facing prosecution for a child’s death after they refused medical treatment on religious grounds. In legal terms, the right of the state will likely triumph over the rights of the individual, as it asserts its power to protect children, he said.
“I certainly wouldn’t discount the power of faith as an element in healing,” Mr. Piche said. “When you run into faith versus science, and you are dealing with children who are not capable of making rational decisions themselves, I think under those circumstances the state has a genuine interest in stepping in.”
There are a relatively small number of faiths that practice what Mr. Peters describes as “hard renunciatory behavior,” completely spurning medical science and relying on religious remedies.
“Most Christian Americans do believe to some extent that prayer can heal,” Mr. Peters said. “If you walk into any church on Sunday morning, you’ll hear people offering prayers for the sick. But most American Christians think that prayer can heal, but so too can science and they can complement each other.”
According to the Associated Press, at least five American families have had a parent flee with a sick child in recent years to avoid state-mandated medical treatments.
Perhaps the most famous was Darren and Barbara Jensen of Utah, who fled to Idaho with their son Parker in 2003 to avoid a chemotherapy order. The couple pleaded guilty but no jail or fines were imposed, and the Jensens have become public advocates for parental-rights legislation in such matters.