An Amish couple are battling an Ohio hospital for the right to stop chemotherapy treatment for their 10-year-old daughter.
Akron Children’s Hospital administered one round of chemotherapy to Sarah Hershberger, who has the rare blood cancer lymphoblastic lymphoma, before her parents told the hospital to stop the treatment in June.
“Our belief is, to a certain extent, we can use modern medicine,” said Hershberger’s father, Andy. “But at some time we have to stop it and do something else.”
Sarah’s parents declined a second round of chemotherapy because the side effects made her horribly sick. They decided to use a doctor who would attempt to treat the cancer with natural medicines, like herbs and vitamins.
But the hospital took the Hershbergers to court, saying that without chemotherapy, the little girl will die within the year. Claiming the girl’s best interest, the hospital asked the court to transfer guardianship for Sarah’s medical decisions to an attorney who is also a registered nurse. Physical and legal custody would remain with her parents.
In July, a Medina Country Probate and Juvenile Judge denied the hospital’s request and upheld the parent’s right to end treatment. The judge held that the court cannot appoint another guardian unless the parents are found to be “unfit,” and “there is not a scintilla of evidence showing the parents are unfit.”
Last week, an appellate court ordered the Medina County judge to reconsider the case. The court held that the judge failed to consider what was in the girl’s best interest.
Court precedent doesn’t look good for the Hershbergers: In 2009 and 2012, parents in Minnesota risked losing custody of their children by refusing chemotherapy. In both cases, the parents eventually complied with the court-ordered treatment, in spite of their personal and religious objections.
When doctors believe parents’ actions, or failure to act, will cause their child’s death, most courts force the doctor’s recommended treatment. “The notion is that young children don’t have the capacity yet to make choices, and when parents make choices that cost their lives, the courts can step in,” said Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist and director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University.
But Andy Hershberger fears losing his parental rights. While the judge hasn’t issued a new ruling, Sarah could be required to continue chemotherapy against her parents’ wishes.
“This isn’t the way it should be,” Andy Hershberger said.