October 8, 2009
Earlier this year, here in the state of Minnesota, a judge determined that Colleen and Anthony Hauser were guilty of child neglect and endangerment because they opted not to proceed with chemotherapy as a treatment for their son Daniel, who had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The family is part of a Native American religious sect called Nemenhah, a faith which guided their medical decisions. The state mandated that Daniel receive the chemotherapy, and the parents eventually yielded to the government’s authority after a relatively short period of protest. This week, a similar story has a new development in the neighboring state of Wisconsin.
Dale and Leilani Neumann could have received up to 25 years in prison for the March 2008 death of Madeline Neumann, who died of an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes. They were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in separate trials earlier this year.
In sentencing the couple, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns were “very good people, raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision.”
The case was believed to be the first of its kind in Wisconsin involving faith healing in which someone died and another person was charged with a homicide.
Prosecutors contended the Neumanns recklessly killed their youngest of four children by ignoring obvious symptoms of severe illness as she became too weak to speak, eat, drink or walk. They said the couple had a legal duty to take their daughter to a doctor but relied totally on prayer for healing. The girl, known as Kara, died on the floor of the family’s rural Weston home as people surrounded her and prayed. Someone finally called 911 after she stopped breathing.
This story stands as another example of the state interfering in a private medical and religious matter. They do so utilizing a bastardization of the term “neglect” as justification.
Wisconsin law defines neglect broadly as “failure to provide necessaries of life.” Consider the more detailed definition which medical professionals are taught to look for by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health:
Child neglect (also called psychological abuse) is a form of child abuse that occurs when someone intentionally does not provide a child with food, water, shelter, clothing, medical care, or other necessities (emphasis added).
Other forms of child neglect include:
- Allowing the child to witness violence or severe abuse between parents or adults
- Ignoring, insulting, or threatening the child with violence
- Not providing the child with a safe environment and adult emotional support
- Showing reckless disregard for the child’s well bein
At face value, this may seem to be a common sense definition. However, the subjective nature of “medical care, or other necessities,” and other terms, provide a wedge for interfering in family matters which are none of anyone’s business. What constitutes “ignoring?” What constitutes an “insult?” Who determines what is or is not a “safe environment?” What is “adult emotional support” and how is its absence determined? Is a threat to use corporal discipline “threatening [a] child with violence?” Who is to say what constitutes medical care? Is a vaccine medical care? Is an herb? If a prayer is not, why not? Who gets to make that choice?
“They allowed Kara to die because they got themselves too caught up in the misguided belief that they were being tested by God,” the prosecutor said.
Excuse me? The “misguided” belief? Who is the arbiter of what constitutes a misguided religious belief? This prosecutor? This judge? The state of Wisconsin? The federal government? Perhaps the United Nations in the not too distant future? Is not the final arbiter of religious belief and consent to medical treatment the individual? Are not children still considered legally incompetent, and therefore rightfully obligated to the custodianship of their parents? Not anymore, folks. We see more and further examples of state interference in patently parental decisions at a rate which seems only to increase.
But these people are crazy, some may argue. They’re daughter is dead and it’s their fault and they should pay. You think they’re not? Is it not punishment enough to have lost one’s child?
I agree their judgment was severely lacking. Theirs was not the choice I would have made. But it was not my choice to make! Nor was it yours. Nor was it the government’s. It was theirs and theirs alone, and they will live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. To label them neglectful is to deny their right to determine for them and theirs what constitutes proper medical treatment. Medicine is not food, clothing, or shelter. Medicine is not a “necessity.” It is a contingency, a response to an abnormal circumstance. The need for food is constant, never abating, and universally fulfilled in a specific manner. Likewise the need for clothing and shelter are perpetual, and their fulfillments uncontroversial. Medicine is different. The approach to medicine varies greatly from person to person in different cultures with different ideas about health, including spiritual health. These ideas may seem ridiculous to you or me. They may in fact be ridiculous, even within the professed theology of the individual. But the demands of liberty dictate the individual’s ability to make a ridiculous choice. We are slowly but surely creeping away from that as a country, and the end of such incrementalism will not be healthy.
The judge ordered the couple to serve one month in jail each year for six years so the parents can “think about Kara and what God wants you to learn from this.” One parent would serve the term in March and the other in September. Howard stayed the jail sentences while the couple’s convictions are appealed.
As part of their probation, the parents must allow a public health nurse to examine their two underage children at least once every three months and must immediately take their children to a doctor for any serious injuries.
The objective of such state intervention is state intervention. It is control. It is taking over parental responsibility from parents. It is justified, like virtually all intrusions upon liberty, with fringe examples that conjure support for the state’s efforts. An unscientific poll conducted by AOL asks respondents if the judge’s sentence in this case was appropriate. At the time of this writing, 59% had voted that it was “too lenient!” 29% replied that it was “about right.” Only 12% agreed with my assessment of the sentence as “too harsh.” I understand the results. People are likely feeling, not thinking. They are likely applying their own judgment, rather than looking at whose judgment should matter. They may also look at the sentence and think, That’s not so bad. One month a year? Split up so they’re not both away at the same time? That makes sense. They’re getting off light. But it sets a nasty precedent.
This is not a “slippery slope” argument. This is a “line in the sand” argument. Government must not be allowed to stick its nose in the tent of parental affairs except in cases of extraordinary and demonstrable physical abuse and real neglect (starving or exposure). Erring needs to be on the side of parental and religious rights, because we either have them or we don’t. This case, believed to be the first of its kind in the history of the state, sets the precedent that government decides what medical treatment is appropriate rather than parents. It is a very small step from there to forced vaccination, mandatory doctor visits, forced drugging, etc. What’s stopping it if not a strict libertarian position on parental rights? If you are going to make the argument that the state has a vested interest in making medical decisions for individuals and their children, what principle bars that interest from expanding to every aspect of health care?