Basically, the child had lymphoma, got his initial chemotherapy, then was supposed to follow up with home chemotherapy and additional follow up appointments, many of which were supposedly missed. Now the tumor has recurred, and is more aggressive, and the child's chance of survival has gone from 90% to 10%.
To complicate the situation, in addition to the child being autistic, the parents are going thru what has been described as a "bitter divorce", where the father hasn't had recent contact with his son, but has now assumed custody.
Orac has a good post up on this, but I thought I'd add my take.
In ethics, one way of approaching problems where there is conflict is termed the "4 Principles" approach. The authors Beuchamp and Childress wrote a groundbreaking book on medical ethics in 1979, which is now in its fifth edition. In this book, the authors describe four principles that could be used to assist in deciding questions of medical ethics. The four principles are usually listed as "autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice". A fairly good concise overview of these principles can be found here.
Although Beuchamp and Childress never argued that any one principle should be more important than any of the others, in American medicine and ethics circles autonomy has generally been held to be "first among equals". What this means is that, generally speaking, a competent adult has the right to refuse any treatment, even if doing so would kill them.
As children generally can't decide for themselves what is best for them (especially 8 year olds), their parents are usually given broad leeway in making decisions for them. Historically speaking, however, there are definite limits to this authority.
For instance, if a child needs a life saving blood transfusion but the parent's religion doesn't allow for any blood products, then it is routine in children's hospitals for emergency custody to be granted to someone appointed by the state, who will approve the transfusion. This case appears to be similar, but not totally identical, to the case of a blood transfusion. In this case, a relatively simple (but still with arguably potential serious side effects) was withheld from the child by the mother (according to the charges). The question is whether the mother should be able to act on her son's behalf and refuse treatment.
Before going further into this, let's go back to the other three principles.
Beneficence means doing the best thing for the patient. It would seem obvious that giving the child the chemotherapy would be the best thing. But each adult has the right to refuse treatment, even chemotherapy. And even with the chemotherapy, there would be a 10% chance of dying. A competent person might say that they would rather have a 10% chance of living, and not have to undergo the pain of needlesticks, the constant nausea, hair loss, weight loss, fatigue, etc. But certainly most people would choose to undergo all of these things in order to improve their chances of survival from 10% to 90%. And most of the time, although chemo is still chemo, outpatient follow up treatments generally have a lot less severe side effects than the initial inpatient treatment.
Although I often think of this Disney character when I hear the word, non-maleficence, what it actually refers to is not harming the patient. The second thing I think of (after the Disney character) is the medical aphorism "First, do no harm." Again, what we balance here is a large potential future harm (recurrence of the tumor, which is what in fact happened) against the immediate harm of undergoing treatment. Perhaps undergoing treatment for this autistic child was particularly difficult. Treatment may have included injections of chemotherapy into the spinal canal, and depending on whether they were willing to anesthetize the child for these, it might have been fairly traumatic (even undergoing anesthesia to have it done might be fairly traumatic). So it's not necessarily a total slam dunk when it comes to considering non-maleficence.
Finally there's justice, which basically means doing what's fair, as well as what's best for society as a whole. Society benefits from having healthy citizens. And most people would agree that all people deserve to get chemotherapy for a tumor. So I think that most would agree that justice would fall on the side of the child getting chemotherapy.
So what we are left with is questions of the mom's ability to speak for the child against the state's interest in having healthy citizens, and beneficence weighing heavily on treating the disease process, as the treatment is mostly safe, though it has some potential bad side effects.
I think that most people would treat their child in a situation such as this, which is why people are up in arms, and why charges have been filed. The mother may have a certain degree of ignorance regarding the risks involved, and may also not have a lot of support in her life at the moment (though I know that's no excuse). The father may or not be a "victim" in all this. He may share some of the blame for not picking up some of the slack, or may have been actively excluded by his wife. It's hard to tell from outside.
In the end it doesn't look forward for the child, but we can all hope for miracles. And I hope that the child's autism did not enter into the mom's equation of whether to withhold treatment or not.
Me- Joe, husband of a great wife, and dad to two great kids, who were both adopted at birth.
Liz- My ever understanding wife, who manages to wear many hats (mom, advocate, therapist, teacher) for our kids.
Buddy Boy- Born in 2000. Funny, intelligent, inventive, and autistic. Loves machines.
Sweet Pea- Born in 2002. Typical little sister. Competitive, outgoing, and smart. Loves anything pink.