Daniel Hauser Flees Country to Avoid Chemotherapy: Is Prayer to Blame?
Spoiler alert: No, not really. But we’ll get to that.
First, the issue at hand: 13-year old Daniel Hauser and his mother have fled the country. They’re on the run not from a crime, but from modern medicine, enforced by a court order. Hauser has nodular sclerosing Hodgkin’s disease, explained in more detail by Dr. David Gorski. It’s highly treatable (85%-90% long term survival rate) with a range of therapies, the most important of which is chemotherapy. But if Hauser’s parents successfully prevent doctors from starting aggressive treatment, however, Hauser is almost certainly going to die, and die on the unsound altar of his mother’s commitment to some really lousy ideas about alternative medicine and spiritual healing.
The case is sad and upsetting any way you look at it: even the best outcome is going to involve doctors forcing drugs into a child that will make him feel awful. And there’s always still the chance that he could die anyway, living in foster care with his family locked away in jail. Given that Hauser is illiterate and was found by the courts to be legally incompetent to make his own medical decisions, the court order mandating treatment is the right decision. But it doesn’t make the situation a happy one. Hauser himself seems totally committed to his mother’s views on chemotherapy (and already went one course of treatment which made him, as this kind of chemo inevitably does, feel terrible). If he had been raised by different people, his thinking would likely be radically different. In some ways, whether he himself chose to live or die came down to which parents he happened to have. And that’s just upsetting, whatever happens to him.
Who’s to blame for it all? Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers rains down fire and brimstone not simply on the deluded parents, but upon all moderate believers. He essentially accuses them of enabling the dangerous idea that faith and prayer are effective or even acceptable ways to deal with things in the real world. I can understand his outrage, but I don’t think this is in any way fair. Myers lumps all forms and purposes for prayer into the same category and damns it all equally by citing the most extreme interpretations, few of which the moderate believers he’s attacking would ever endorse. This strikes me as silly as claiming that a belief in Santa Claus enables people’s belief in Islamic martyrdom. Faith can indeed be dangerous as a guide to anything material, and its important to challenge it in general, and questionable claims based on it which can and do hurt people.
But there’s also no doubt that faith and prayer are also important and beneficial to many people, whatever its epistemological foundation. You can call that a psychological crutch or sociological addiction if you want, but none of this makes one person’s chosen (or, in many cases, unchosen) faith answerable to or an endorsement of someone elses’. Many people simply don’t put their faith beliefs over evidence when the two collide and while that doesn’t make faith reasonable or above criticism, it does mean that they’re solidly on the side of rationalists when it comes to these issues and don’t deserve to be accused of playing for the other team. Faith as a general methodology: the willingness to accept the truth of something unproven or unprovable can certainly in theory justify anything at all, including atrocity. But that’s just not how most people come to their elements of faith: they don’t “check their brains at the door,” or endorse anyone else doing the same without warrant, not in the black/white sense that Myers envisions.
Even if all faith belief were unequivocally silly and unwarranted, that no more makes all believers responsible for an excessive reliance on faith in real-world decisions than it does moderate conservatives responsible for James Dobson’s bile. People are responsible for the consequences of only those ideas they actually support and defend, whether those ideas are well founded or not. I happen to support various ideas about animal rights which, in the end, come down to untestable value judgments about the moral importance of animal suffering. But I don’t have to answer for PETA or the ALF.
While Myers does cite other instances in which prayer played a central role in the death of a child, Hauser’s case isn’t so clear cut in any case. The family’s objections seem more rooted in doctrines of naturalistic healing in general than any specific religious tradition they belong to. Hauser has claimed in court that he was “a medicine man and church elder in the Nemenhah” which seems a bit silly (his parents joined the group 18 years ago, but aren’t themselves Native Americans). I’d target folks like Mike Adams, Kevin Trudeau, and other alternative medicine health gurus before someones grandma putting in her weekly pew prostrations. At least Trudeau and Adams directly defend and shill for the dangerous ideologies on modern medicine that the Hausers seem to have bought into.
The reality is that Hodgkins lymphoma has killed a lot of people, and their loved ones would have given anything to gain access to the sorts of treatments that the Hausers are turning their backs’ on. Treatments that would have allowed sons and daughters to live on, start families of their own, experience everything they’d always hoped for in life, instead of dying slowly and painfully (as Dr. Gorski points out: chemo is certainly unpleasant, but there is no such thing as a peaceful death from cancer: the pain and wasting of cancer is a far more ghastly “poison” than any medical treatment).
Regardless of where you stand, I hope people know that this is one area of medicine in which money for research has and will make a real difference, not only in finding more and better cures for blood cancers, but also in making those treatments far less painful. You can always donate to the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to help move that ball forward. Or join programs like Team in Training which not only help you raise money for research, but will improve your own health and camaraderie along the way.
Update: Hauser and his mother seem to have seen the folly of living life on the run with cancer, and have returned to face the court ruling and accept treatment. This, hopefully, will turn out even better than my “worst case scenario”: Hauser will face the trying trial of harsh chemotherapy, but he’ll make it through ok and have his loving family there by his side. They may be sheepish about all the drama, but the important thing is that he’ll be alive and still with them, and that’s more than worth the rather trifling matter of admitting that they were wrong. They may have been misguided, but that only makes it more obvious that they loved him and would do anything for him… however desperate and deluded they might have been in seeking to avoid the best therapy for his disease we know of, so far.