Sleepy Eye parents, teen fight to refuse chemo

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2009 - 11:20 PM

A trial Friday in New Ulm, Minn., will test whether a family can reject cancer treatment for their son and disobey doctors' orders.

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The Hauser family, with Daniel Hauser, front, belongs to an American Indian religious organization called Nemenhah.

Photo: Doreen Tyler, Sleep Eye Herald-Dispatch

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Daniel Hauser has what doctors consider one of the most curable types of cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma.

But the 13-year-old from Sleepy Eye, Minn. and his parents don't want him to have chemotherapy and radiation, the standard treatments. For the past three months, they have ignored the advice of his cancer specialists and turned to natural therapies, such as herbs and vitamins, instead.

Now they are going to court to defend their decision.

James Olson, the Brown County attorney, has filed a petition accusing Daniel's parents, Colleen and Anthony Hauser, of child neglect and endangerment, and he has asked a judge in New Ulm to order the boy into treatment.

The case, which goes to trial this morning, has quickly turned into a cause celebre in the world of alternative medicine. Last week, supporters packed the courthouse in New Ulm, Minn., for a pretrial hearing, and both sides are bracing for an even a bigger crowd today.

"You can't imagine what kind of outpouring we've gotten here," said Calvin Johnson, a Mankato attorney who is representing Daniel's parents. "There's a lot of feeling on this subject."

Daniel, one of eight children, has asserted that treatment would violate his religious beliefs. The teenager filed an affidavit saying that he is a medicine man and church elder in the Nemenhah, an American Indian religious organization that his parents joined 18 years ago (though they don't claim to be Indians).

"I am opposed to chemotherapy because it is self-destructive and poisonous," he told the court. "I want to live a virtuous life, in the eyes of my creator, not just a long life." He also filed a "spiritual path declaration" that said: "I am a medicine man. Some times we teach, and some times we perform. Now, I am doing both. I will lead by example."

Johnson said Daniel's case has touched a nerve because the state wants to impose a potentially dangerous treatment that neither the boy nor his family believe in. "Why does a doctor have the right to come in with the power of the state and the county attorney by his side and say 'take my medicine?' " he said.

But Olson, the county attorney, says he is trying to protect a child from a decision that could cost him his life.

"If he were 18 years old and made the decision that his parents are making for him, we would not be in court," Olson said. "Since the boy just turned 13 in March, I felt the judge needs to take a look at this and make a decision."

The family declined a request for an interview Thursday.

Danny, as he is known, was first found to have cancer in late January, and his doctors recommended six rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, according to court papers. The disease -- a cancer of the immune cells -- has a 95 percent survival rate for his age group with treatment, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

But after one round of chemotherapy, Daniel became so sick that his parents refused to send him for a second treatment. They switched him to an alternative regime of complementary medicine, including dietary changes and "ionized water," Johnson said.

In the meantime, the Hausers asked for second and third opinions from the Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota. In both cases, the cancer specialists recommended chemotherapy and radiation, said Olson, the county attorney. Without treatment, he said, he was told the boy could die. In April, he filed a petition asking the court to force treatment.

Olson's petition says, in part: "Both the Mayo and Children's doctors have told the parents that Daniel has a 90 percent chance of being cured with standard chemotherapy and radiation, and this would decrease significantly to 50 percent or less if the tumor is allowed to re-grow and develops resistance to chemotherapy.''

"There's a fine line between parental rights to do what parents feel [is] in the best interest of their children, and the state's right," Olson said Thursday. "In this case, we've claimed we have a compelling state interest in protecting this young man."

James S. Turner, a Washington lawyer and natural health advocate, has joined the battle on the Hausers' side.

"Consumers do have the right to choose what kind of approach they want to take on any health question, that's our argument," said Turner, who was one of Ralph Nader's original Nader's Raiders, and now chairs a group called Citizens for Health.

Philip Elbert, a St. Peter attorney who is representing Daniel, agrees. "If a parent is given a choice of two rational choices, you can't just say 'I don't like that choice,'" he said. "We may not agree with the decision, but it's not our decision to make."

The parents have said they were not ruling out chemotherapy completely, and would try it again if the cancer begins to grow, according to court documents. For now, Daniel appears to be doing well, said Johnson.

Olson says he would not have gone to court if the boy had a grim prognosis, "and the parents made a decision that they don't want to put him through chemotherapy." But in this case, he said, "the doctors are telling us that it's 90 percent curable."

In his court papers, though, Daniel sounds defiant. "I claim this, as my right, that no one: No government, No big Brother, No Tribe, No other human being may interfere with my Spiritual Path and my consciousness."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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