Guardianship: How Far Do Parental Rights Extend When Medical Decisions are Involved?

Making medical decisions can be difficult. Many times there are options to treatment. Even some natural and holistic approaches are becoming more popular than traditional medicine. However, medical decisions become even harder when a child is involved. Parents must not only consider what is best for their child, but often times they receive opposition from medical institutions if they do not agree with the recommended treatment. A recent case out of Ohio well illustrates this.

A Parent’s Right

In the summer of 2013, Sarah Hershberger was treated with chemotheraphy for 3 T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. Eleven-year-old Sarah pleaded with her parents to discontinue the treatment due to the miserable side effects. Her parents, who are Amish, sought a more natural approach with herbs and vitamins. They based their decision on prayer and the fear that chemo itself may kill Sarah. The Children’s hospital that was treating her immediately filed a guardianship court proceeding, with the goal of forcing the chemo treatment. Their argument is that evidence shows the survival rate for Sarah’s type of cancer is higher than 80 percent with treatment, but the disease is almost always fatal without. Sarah’s family, however, says they traveled to South America to a natural cancer treatment center. Experts there found that Sarah was now cancer-free. The judge in the case ruled in favor of Sarah’s family. However, his ruling was overturned twice in appeals court. The family went in to hiding to avoid having Sarah under the care of the court-appointed guardian and having the chemo treatments continued.

High Stakes

Most recently, the court-appointed guardian submitted her resignation to the judge, meaning the court battle is over. Sarah seems to be doing well. While it’s difficult to judge if her good health is the result of her first round of chemo, the natural treatments or both, the bigger question revolves around a parents right to choose the treatment they feel is best for their child. This question arises more than one might think. Parents may object to a certain treatment on religious grounds or simply because they think a different treatment is more beneficial, as is the case with Sarah’s family. Does a hospital have the right to force treatment on a child? Parents have a “fundamental right that guarantees you to raise and bring up your child in terms of their health care in a way that you see fit as a parent,” said Maurice Thompson, Sarah’s attorney and director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law. “The Hershbergers have strong constitutional rights that are at stake h ere,” Thompson continued.

Most think of guardianship cases as involving parental neglect or abuse. However, as this case illustrates, the question of guardianship can arise even within a loving, supportive family. Ford + Bergner specializes in guardianship issues and has the expertise to advocate on behalf of parents in even the most unique cases. Contact us for a