As the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday approached last week, an Amish family decided to flee to Canada to prevent unwanted medical treatment for their daughter.
Andy and Anna Hershberger and their 10 year old daughter Sarah Hershberger have been contending with medical authorities in Ohio’s Akron Children’s Hospital. The Hershbergers state that the chemotherapy drugs prescribed for the child’s leukemia have caused painful side effects for her. In June, they refused any further treatment, preferring natural vitamins and herbal treatments instead. The hospital took them to court to force the parents to allow the chemotherapy.
According to one news report on Wednesday, doctors argued that the girl has an 85 percent chance of living if she continues with the medical treatment, but will die within a year if she is not given the medicine. In October, an appellate court, overruling a lower court decision, sided with the hospital. The court appointed a registered nurse who is also an attorney, Maria Schimer, with the power to decide medical issues regarding the child.
The family disappeared from their farm sometime before October 30. An attorney for the Hershbergers, John Oberholtzer, and an attorney for Ms. Schimer, Clair Dickinson, both reported on Wednesday that they did not know the whereabouts of the family. Oberholtzer said the family has kept in contact with him to see how their appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court is progressing.
On Thanksgiving day, Thursday, new reports indicated that the Hershbergers had fled to Canada to avoid the threatening American medical forces. A different attorney representing the family, Maurice Thompson, told ABC News that the family has a “moral right to refuse conventional medical treatment.”
Thompson told the news service, “Sarah’s condition has gotten a lot better since the family has been pursuing the alternative treatment.” Andy Hershberger, the father, had told ABC News in August, “We’ve seen how sick [the chemotherapy] makes her. Our belief is the natural stuff will do just as much as that stuff if it’s God’s will.” The attorney said that the family had left the U.S. in order to seek alternative treatments, and has no plans to return to Ohio.
But Mr. Hershberger apparently did not cite any religious reasons for opposing the chemotherapy. Instead, the concern of the parents is for the suffering of the child. “If we do chemotherapy and she would happen to die, she would probably suffer more than if we would do it this way and she would happen to die,” he said.
A different news source on Thursday quoted an oncologist from the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, Howard Weinstein, on the value of continuing prescribed chemotherapy treatments, even when the patient experiences adverse reactions during the first month.
Dr. Weinstein explained that the girl could restart her chemotherapy, and while it would have a reasonable chance of success, the cancer would be even more difficult to cure because of the interruption.
He argued that while parents and children who are taking chemotherapy may feel the treatment is worse than the illness, they need to persist, since the final outcome is normally better. The parents may think that the improvement the child is experiencing is due to the switch to the natural methods, but that is incorrect. “The first month of chemotherapy did all the work,” he contends.
A news story on Friday gives a contrary impression. It indicated that Sarah’s grandfather, Isaac Keim, told the Akron Beacon Journal that the girl was continuing with her natural treatments and he says she is doing better. He contends that medical tests show that the cancer is now gone. Sarah, who recently turned 11, seems healthy and vibrant.
The earlier news stories had indicated that the Medina County sheriff, Tom Miller, was not planning to search for the family unless required to do so by a court order. Hospital authorities have not said whether they will seek further legal action against the family. Meanwhile the girl and her parents have returned to the U.S., Mr. Keim said, but they remain in hiding.
Their reaction, of flight from threats posed by the hospital authorities, follows long Amish tradition. Hostetler (1993, p.76) wrote that the Amish follow the example of Isaac in the Bible. Faced with the hostility of the Philistines, he moved to new lands and dug new wells to resist fighting with them (Gen. 26:15-29). Therefore, facing hostile actions or threats, the Amish take the biblical example literally: they usually move to new locations without defending themselves. The flight of the Hershberger family exemplifies this pattern of Amish nonresistance.