Can the Government Force Medical Treatment?


On Thursday, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld a previous ruling that declared the state has the right to force a 17-year-old to undergo chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. The teenager had refused to continue treatment, citing medical concerns, but the courts ruled that the young woman lacked "maturity" and "competence" to make such a life-altering decision.  

Early last year Reason TV covered a similar case in Ohio. The state stepped in when an 11-year-old girl, supported by her Amish family, refused to continue chemotherapy for her lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare cancer. The family sought alternative medication, which they say, helped their daughter make a healthy recovery. The state, however, disagreed and took the case to court citing concern for the "best interest of the child." This case, though, does have a happy ending: the state ended up dropping the case and the girl was not forced to pump unwanted chemicals into her body.

Originally published March 11, 2014. Original text below:

Disclaimer: Amish law precludes formal interview settings, but the Hershbergers spoke with Reason TV at length about Sarah's case and allowed us to record them.

For nearly a year, 11-year-old Sarah Hershberger has simultaneously been battling cancer and a court case. Last April, she was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare cancer. Her doctor encouraged her to immediately start chemotherapy, and she quickly began her first treatment.
The side effects took their toll, and the Hershbergers feared for Sarah's well-being. They decided to discontinue treatment. "[The chemotherapy] was really good, but stopping at that point was the best investment we did," says Andy Hershberger, Sarah's father.

"We were pretty sure we were going to lose her if we kept doing the chemo," says Anna Hershberger, Sarah's mother. The Hershbergers wanted to pursue a more natural treatment, then return to the chemotherapy if necessary.
Akron Children's Hospital was not open to discussing alternative or supplemental treatments, and officials there expressed concern that Sarah would die if she discontinued treatment. The hospital eventually went on the offensive.
"Akron Children's Hospital originally tried to have Sarah Hershberger taken away from her parents and Medina County Children Services flat out refused to do that. They said these parents are suitable parents, they are high quality parents, they're loving parents," says the Hershbergers' attorney and director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law,Maurice Thompson.

The hospital continued to push the issue all the way to an appellate court, arguing that "a finding of parental 'suitability' does not end a probate court's inquiry. Parental rights, even if based upon firm belief and honest convictions can be limited in order to protect the 'best interests' of the child."

The appellate court sided with the hospital and appointed a legal guardian to make medical decisions for Sarah. The Hershbergers feared that the guardian would force Sarah back into chemotherapy, so they fled the country.
"We were in Mexico three weeks," says Sarah's uncle, Isaac Hershberger. "We had to leave because if we stayed in the U.S., any hospital in the U.S. would report right back to Akron Children's".

The Hershbergers didn't provide specifics about Sarah's "alternative" treatment, but she seems to be doing well. She may be feeling better because of the first chemotherapy treatment, or the alternative treatment, or a combination. We don't know what Sarah's future holds, but Thompson says that because the family is more than suitable, Sarah's treatment should be left entirely to their discretion.

"Having a free society means that people need to be free to take risks, including risks with their family when they are suitable and loving parents who will take those risks out of a position of love and belief," says Thompson. "It's one thing for society, government, for experts to overrule parents who are abusive, or who are neglectful or who perhaps lack the capacity to properly care for their children, and it's imperative to emphasize that none of those are the case here."
"If we could just be left alone, that's what we're asking for," says Isaac Hershberger.

It appears that this request will be fulfilled. The appellate judge recently accepted the guardian's resignation, and it looks like the Hershbergers will not have to continue this court battle. If they do, Thompson is ready to fight the "best interest of the child" standard all the way to the Supreme Court.
"Whether it's the right to refuse unwanted forced medical treatment, or whether it's the fundamental right that guarantees you to raise and bring up your child in terms of their education and their health care in the way that you see fit as a parent, it's pretty clear that the Hershbergers have strong constitutional rights that are at stake here. And that's really what we're protecting," Thompson says.

About 6:30 minutes.
Written, produced, and narrated by Tracy Oppenheimer. Camera by Josh Swain and Amanda Winkler.
Featuring "Syaba" from Ryosuke Sone's Root of Sorrow.
Scroll down for downloadable versions of this video, and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube Channel for notifications when new material goes live.

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  1. The state has no business forcing someone to accept medical treatment especially if the family supports the minor’s decision.

    1. Wish I could go there with you. Parents refusing to pump poison into their kid I back without reservation. Jehovah Witness parents refusing a life saving blood-transfusion? Sorry no. Don’t care how much they love the kid or their community supports them.

      1. So the state should have some power based on subjective interpretation? It can’t force people to put “poison” in their children, but it can force them to use other life-saving treatments?

        Here’s some risks of blood transufsions published by Mayo:…..c-20021256

        Also, according to Johns Hopkins blood transfusions are overused and potentially dangerous in some situations.…..e_patients

      2. I think you’re wrong. I think that the few children lost to bad decisions by parents who are cracked in the head are a tiny price to pay to say that the State has no goddamned business mandating any sort of medical treatment for any reason whatsoever. I know that such a position means that we are going to have numb-nuts keeping their kids from being vaccinated, and a return of whooping cough and so forth. It still isn’t anywhere near as dangerous to life and limb as a State that has the authority to force medical treatment.

        1. I 100% agree with you. Libertarians constantly make this argument around security and such, but for some reason healthcare decisions suddenly flip the script.

        2. Right. Give an inch, take a mile, as it were.

  2. Well they do have the largest network of cages for storing humans and a ton of fire power to enforce it. But morally, no.

  3. We know what’s best for you.

  4. This case, though, does have a happy ending: the state ended up dropping the case and the girl was not forced to pump unwanted chemicals into her body.

    I understand where you’re coming from, but can we really consider a 12 year old girl committing suicide a happy ending?

    1. “I understand where you’re coming from, but can we really consider a 12 year old girl committing suicide a happy ending?”

      No. So what?

      1. but can we really consider a 12 year old girl committing suicide a happy ending?”

        No. So what?

        What if I told you that 12 year old girl was a future Hitler?

      2. So… he wrote something, and I pointed out why that’s probably not true. Do you not understand how comment threads work?

        1. Careless|1.10.15 @ 10:39PM|#
          “So… he wrote something, and I pointed out why that’s probably not true. Do you not understand how comment threads work?”

          Maybe I misunderstood. My point is that I have no desire for a kid to die refusing functional treatments. I also have less than no desire for the state to force them to undergo those treatments.
          People make what I see as bad choices. I refuse to promote the use of force to punish them.

    2. It’s not suicide. Chemo is very hard on the body. Many people with cancer die from the chemotherapy, not the cancer.

      You’re really asking if a girl can opt for a less unpleasant treatment with a lower probability of success.

    3. Did we read the same article? If I read it correctly, the girl still lives. So how did she “commit suicide”?

  5. Hey what is Minnesoda? Chopped liver?…..with-chemo

    We forced our kids to do what we think is best, just as good as any coastal proggie enclave.

  6. Didn’t Steve Jobs refuse medical treatment for his pancreatic cancer?

    Obviously, he died, but surely there isn’t some magic line at 18 where people suddenly are capable of deciding that they don’t want to endure a tremendous amount of suffering to treat a disease nobody has a surefire cure for.

    1. HazelMeade|1.11.15 @ 9:51AM|#
      “Didn’t Steve Jobs refuse medical treatment for his pancreatic cancer?”

      From what I am sure of:
      He was told it was a cancer which responded well to (conventional) treatment.
      He then opted for ‘non-conventional’ treatment, woo-shit (sorry, I’m not real good at PC jargon).
      When woo-shit didn’t work, he then opted to try (conventional) treatment, and by then, it had progressed to the point there was no chance of stopping it.
      Think of it as commie-kid asking why the “free market” didn’t prevent the ’08 crash after the gov’t fucked the market for years.

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