The annual Empty Storefront and Black Fly Onset Festival known in small town Minnesota as Memorial Day was seriously dampened last week. Amidst the usual stand-around-the-barbeque pit lamentations about the Twins and tirades over a governor who is shameless in his commitment to rob the poor to give to the rich came guarded conversations about the curious case of Daniel Hauser. Parents, grandparents and garage philosophers were trying to get their heads around letting a 13-year-old decide for himself the issue of receiving chemotherapy for what appears to be a highly curable form of lymphoma. (In case you havent been tracking the situation, the short version is that Hauser, a teenager from rural Minnesota, is citing spiritual beliefs in his familys fight against court-ordered medical intervention.)
It was the same scuttle back at the church: Is a relative child in a position to make a morally complex, potentially life-ending medical decision? Where does freedom of religion end and state sanctioned suffering begin? Doesnt foregoing best medical practices constitute a form of child endangerment? But most common in my circles was not a question, but a solemn, often hushed, statement: I just couldnt take a chance on letting my kid die like that. I just couldnt do it.
Im no medical ethicist here, but this case calls for some serious circumspection. The precedents are few. This is not a case of another misogynistic, breakaway sect gone spring-break wild. No Jim Jones, David Koresh or Aryan Nation types holed up somewhere. And the pointy-headed medical ethicists? Theyre all over the map on this one. What were left with is a farm kid who believes hes a tribal medicine man and would rather roll the dice than submit to the proscribed standard of care.
As I write, Danny Hauser and his mom are in the wind. After keeping a court-ordered appointment for a chest x-ray, Danny was a no-show at his latest hearing. Dad says all he knows is that his wife and son took off. Right. If this were a game of chess, Id say that the state just got checkmated and the ante just got raised.
As with any knotty moral issue, our local pulpit pounders have begun issuing clarion calls for and against court involvement. I suppose that I ought to be crafting a quick sermon, too; my mostly liberal, news-addicted congregants are probably expecting nothing less. The interventionists will want to hear me advocate for swift action and medical treatment. The libertines will lobby that the case of Daniel Hauser is but another clear-eyed reality check about religious freedoms unintended side effects. And, when those two camps have spent their powder, Ill wager that therell be a goodly number of folks who are just deeply, sadly, ambivalent. Just like me.
Right now, young Daniels fate is one big, triangulated mess. Fact is, it doesnt matter all that much what Sunday morning quarterbacks like me really think. What matters is that Daniel, his family and their supporters, not adopt a bunker mentality that can only lead to an unpredictable desperation. What matters is that the attending county workers and law enforcement personnel remain sensitive to the many delicate and potentially volatile nuances of this situation. What matters is that the courts weigh not only the interests of this young man and his family, but also the guiding principles of democracy and the ever-present reality that any final decision is a precedent for the future.
Gone are the days when I believed in ethical absolutes. Trust me, whippersnappers and rush-to-judgment types, live long enough and youll have to make all manner of decisions on all manner of things nobody told you about. You can preach all the sermons you want, but sometimes all you can do is bow your head, cross your fingers, breathe a blessing for all concerned and thank whatever powers that be for what youve been spared.
Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009
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