Why a Hospital Was Sued For Saving a Sick Amish Girl's Life


An appeals court in Ohio has sided with a local hospital in its plea to force a 10-year-old girl to undergo chemotherapy despite her parents' decision to discontinue the treatment. This decision has highlighted the tension between personal freedoms and social responsibility. In positing that the child has a right to treatment deemed necessary by the medical community, the court has deprived her family the freedom to treat her condition as they see fit. This decision highlights the continual debate between the rights and responsibilities granted to individuals and the power given to institutions that govern them.

In this case, the Amish belief system that the parents of Sarah Hershenberger subscribe to were called into question, leaving the child's medical fate in the hands of an attorney. Her parents, who live on a farm and operate a produce stand 35 miles outside of Cleveland, Ohio claim that chemotherapy was making their daughter sicker. They acknowledged that their beliefs affected their decision to suspend her treatment. In a phone interview, Sarah's father Andy Hershenberger explained, "Our belief is, to a certain extent, we can use modern medicine but at some times we have to stop it and do something else." The 'something else' has been to treat the child with natural medicine and monitor her health at a wellness center.

According to Robert McGergor, chief medical officer at Akron Children's Hospital where Sarah had received chemotherapy, this alternate approach has put her in danger. The five-year survival rate of her aggressive form of leukemia would be 85% were she to continue treatment. Accordingly, the appeals court presiding over the case ruled that a judge must reconsider transferring limited guardianship based on what the hospital considers a moral obligation to properly treat the disease. The hospital's argument is based on the notion that the child has a right to proper care, that proper care is based on medical fact, and that protecting her right is the hospital's responsibility.

Just as institutional responsibility and personal freedom can be opposing forces, so to can mainstream opinions and personal beliefs. While the underlying questions that surround these philosophical conflicts could be parceled out and scrutinized endlessly, the result would often be the same: where broad opinions contradict fringe beliefs, the popular will likely beat out the personal, for better or worse.