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Jody Madeira
Professor, IU Maurer School of Law
(812) 856-1082

Debbie O'Leary
IU Maurer School of Law
(812) 855-2426

Law professor discusses controversial medical neglect case

May 19, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A judge in Minnesota has ruled that a family must get medical treatment for their 13-year-old son's cancer because it is highly treatable.

Based on their religious convictions, the family had chosen alternative treatments for their son's Hodgkin's lymphoma, which has a 90 percent cure rate with chemotherapy. Doctors have stated the boy has a 5 percent chance of survival without chemotherapy treatment.

According to Jody Madeira, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Brown County (Minn.) District Judge John Rodenberg correctly found that the parents of 13-year-old Daniel Hauser have medically neglected their son by refusing chemotherapy.

"Parents have key interests in maintaining the autonomy of the parent-child relationship, and it is crucial that state courts act to preserve family integrity whenever possible," she said.

Jody Madeira

Jody Madeira

"However, parental autonomy is not an absolute right, and the state can and should intervene when, as here, a child's health and safety are in jeopardy. In this case, Judge Rodenberg correctly determined that conventional cancer treatment was in Daniel's best interests after weighing the effectiveness of the chemotherapy treatment, its effects upon Daniel, and his 90 percent chance of survival against the wishes of his parents. Judge Rodenberg's ruling is so in line with current rulings on medical neglect and parental decision-making that a decision in the alternative would be incomprehensible, particularly given Daniel's extremely high chances of survival and the child's inability to read and therefore give informed consent."

But, she added, freedom of religion is a difficult issue to navigate, but is less of an issue in this case for two reasons. "First, state statutes require parents to provide necessary medical care for a child, and explicitly state that alternative and complementary health care methods are not sufficient. These requirements apply no matter what treatments the tenets of the family's religion prescribe or prohibit."

Madeira said there are also lesser and perhaps unspoken reasons that support this ruling. Mainstream Roman Catholic doctrine does not specifically forbid the medical practices at issue here; rather, the family's preference for alternative treatment stems from their affiliation with the Nemenhah Band -- a Missouri-based religious group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians.

"The practices of the Nemenhah Band have been contested by many Native American scholars, and Phillip Landis, the group's leader, has been convicted of fraud in two states for misleading investors in an alternative-health mushroom-growing business. This case can be contrasted with others in which Jehovah's Witnesses have been able to decline medical treatment that would necessitate blood transfusions because of a religious prohibition against eating blood, which rules out many surgical interventions. But even in cases where the plaintiff parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, if a child's chances of recovery are extremely high, or a child is young and seems relatively immature and therefore unusually emotionally dependent on his parents, as Daniel does, then courts frequently intervene and compel a child to undergo conventional medical treatment on the grounds that he cannot yet know his own mind."

Madeira teaches a course titled Reproduction, Childhood, and the Law. Her research and interests include law and emotion in the family law context and medical neglect and decision-making as it relates to children and the law. She can be reached at 812-856-1082 or by e-mail at