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Cancer Care Battle

Aired September 3, 2003 - 20:09   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: State officials in Utah are trying to resolve a medical standoff with the family of a young cancer patient. The parents of Parker Jensen are resisting an order to take their son to a hospital for chemotherapy, saying they are not convinced the boy is in any danger.

PARKER JENSEN, CANCER PATIENT: I feel great. I feel like normal. I haven't felt different. I haven't been sick.

ZAHN (voice-over): Defying custody and arrest warrants, Daren and Barbara Jensen insist their 12-year-old son's cancer is in remission. They say forcing him to undergo chemotherapy will only stunt his growth and leave him sterile.

So they have left their Sandy, Utah, home and fled to Pocatello, Idaho, out of reach of Utah's laws. State officials are negotiating with the couple in hopes of getting the sick little boy the treatment they say he so desperately needs.

BARBARA JENSEN, MOTHER: We are totally competent parents. And that's what has put us in this situation to make decisions for our son.

ZAHN: Now the couple is facing kidnapping chargers. And Parker, who has already two court-appointed guardians, is the subject of a custody warrant.


ZAHN: Do parents have the right to block medical treatment for their children?

Art Caplan is chair of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us from Philadelphia tonight.

Always good to see you. Welcome.


ZAHN: So, Art, you might have heard a little bit of what Barbara Hill (sic) had to say, that she and her husband, in fact, in their minds, are totally competent to make this kind of decision. How will a court view that argument?

CAPLAN: They're not going to view it with much favor. They're not going to really listen to it and be persuaded.

It's true that parents get a lot of discretion in raising their kids. But if you're in a situation where your child is facing a life- threatening illness -- and the doctors are very firm about that fact, even though the boy feels OK -- the cancer is there -- a court is going to say, you can't do things that will cause the death of your child, if medicine can prevent that. So they are going to be jumping in. If they get ahold of the boy, they will force treatment in this case.

ZAHN: And when you say, Art, if doctors are firm about that, what does that mean, two opinions, three opinions? And how does a court decide how many opinions you have got to have to make that kind of judgment?

CAPLAN: Interestingly enough, a court would go with this one and say, competent doctors, one opinion. If the parents wanted to get a second opinion, they could. But they'd be persuaded by one group of competent cancer specialists who said: This is what we've diagnosed. This is what has got to happen.

They are going to really bend over backwards to make sure that the child's life is protected. If we were in a different situation, say, the child had something like a clubfoot or some kind of back problem, well, the court's going to say, let's get some more opinions. If the parents don't want to treat that, maybe we'll give them a little more room.

But life-threatening cancer, we have got a lot of precedent in this country, state after state of court-ordered treatment.

ZAHN: So even if the parents say, we are convinced, because of these treatments that will leave our son sterile, they just don't buy that argument?

CAPLAN: It's hard, tough, tough case, because you want -- these parents think they're doing the right thing. We can give them the benefit of the doubt. They're trying to protect their son as they see best, as they see fit. And let's assume that's really what they're trying to do.

But when the doctor steps in and says, your child has diabetes, your child needs a blood transfusion, or in this case, your child needs chemotherapy or they're going to die, then whether the parent says on religion grounds or just for whatever reason they want to espouse that they think the treatment isn't indicated, the court is going to say, you can do what you want in medicine as an adult. Children in life-threatening cases, they are going to get treated.

ZAHN: Art, in the middle of your answer to that question, I was told that the Associated Press has now confirm the Hills (sic) say in fact they will bring their child back to the state of Utah if they can get a second out-of-state medical opinion. That's fair, isn't it?

CAPLAN: I think it's absolutely -- there's no problem in a parent saying, I want to make sure before my child goes through something. Chemotherapy is rigorous. It's tough. It could leave somebody sterile. It doesn't always have to, but it could. Getting a second opinion is fine.

And I think, important to remember here, too, Paula, we want to see the child's life saved. And that's the state's duty. They've got to really act, the courts, to protect the child's life. But you don't want to have the parents alienated. You don't want to turn them off. You save the little boy. Somebody's got to parent that boy after he's saved. And anything we can do to make this happen without making the parents feel like they -- something was done to force them or coerce them, it's better if they bring back the child, get that second opinion, and negotiate to get this treatment done.

ZAHN: I know you've seen dozens of these cases over the years, usually involving objections because of religion reasons. This one is a little bit different, but equally fascinating.

Dr. Art Caplan, as always, thanks for your time and your perspective.

CAPLAN: My pleasure.


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