Rights and religious freedoms

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Husband-and-wife journalists Bob Miller and Callie Clark Miller use this space to offer their views on everyday issues.


Imagine a mom. The mom of a teenager. The mom of a sick teenager, a teenager who has a life-threatening disease. There is a treatment, one that will improve her son's odds by as much as 90 percent.

If he has this treatment, he has a 95 percent chance of surviving. But he will go to hell. That's basically what Minnesota mom Colleen Hauser believes about her 13-year-old son, Daniel, undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The Hausers prescribe to the religious beliefs of the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians. A judge ordered Daniel to undergo chemo if an X-ray showed his cancer had grown. It had. Colleen Hauser fled with her son and, as of Wednesday when this column is written, was being sought by authorities on an arrest warrant for contempt of court.

I think this case is difficult for the average parent to understand. The religious beliefs of the Nemenhah Band aren't well known and seem to fly in the face of common sense for most of us. But what if the issue didn't revolve around something so easily perceived as obscure or absurd? What if it were about a religious belief upheld by a more widespread audience? Like abortion? What if your pregnant teen needed an abortion to save her life? And a judge ordered you, as a parent, to make her have the abortion against her will?

Daniel Hauser was clear in court that he did not want to undergo chemo. He threatened to kick and punch anyone who tried to force him to have the treatment. On the other hand, court documents also show he has a learning disability and can't read. The evidence seems obvious: There's a 95 percent chance that chemo will save this boy's life. And only a 5 percent shot at survival if he doesn't undergo the treatment. Rational thought tells us he should have the chemo. But then, religion isn't always rational, is it?


As the son of a Baptist preacher, I heard a lot of missionary stories growing up. Most of them involved some sort of sacrifice for others. For instance, there was one woman missionary who literally starved to death while serving the world's poorest people.

I also learned that, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a test of his faith. Just before Abraham was to carry out this dreadful deed, God sent a ram or a sheep to take the place of the boy. The animal was sacrificed, just like Christ who came many generations later.

As my cute and talented wife pointed out, religion isn't a rational thing. It's a faith thing.

These life issues lie at the core of the country's public ethical debates. Do parents have the right to let their child die? I think not.

Should parents have the right to end their unborn child's life? Let's just say the president and I disagree on this point.

Did Michael Schiavo have the right to pull his wife, Terri, off her feeding tube after a coma? I just don't know.

Can parents refuse to treat their children in life-threatening situations? My first reaction when I heard of this chemotherapy story was that the parents were insane. I thought of my sons and I was angry, angry for the thousands of parents out there who have lost children in accidents, to diseases or miscarriages.

My second reaction was that I hated that the government would find another way to limit religious freedom. In this case, I think the court was right to force the young man to undergo treatment.

As of this writing, the young man and his mother are running from the government, and the father is not cooperating with authorities.

Though I consider the Hausers incompetent parents, I do feel sorry for them. Though I disagree with them, I understand a person's commitment to his beliefs. To deal with a dying child while also on the run from police -- I can't think of a more desperate situation for a parent to find herself in. Then again, much of it is of their choosing. God be with them.

Callie Clark Miller is the special publications managing editor for the Southeast Missourian. Bob Miller is Southeast Missourian managing editor. Reach them at cmiller@semissourian.com and bmiller@semissourian.com.

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