A Clash of Cultural Values: The Case of Sarah Hershberger

Wisdom must be intuitive reason combined with scientific knowledge. ~ Aristotle

In a clash of cultures, the controversial story of Sarah Hershberger, the ten-year-old Amish girl with cancer whose parents have fled the country with her, has stirred strong responses from people who think Sarah’s parents are right, and just as strong reactions those who think the hospital is right in trying to force Sarah into chemotherapy treatment.

There are many things those of us who read the news cannot know for sure. Is Sarah actually cancer free now?  Is the legal team working on the hospital’s behalf more concerned about Sarah’s well-being or their public relations? How did the medical team arrive at the conclusion that Sarah has an 85 percent chance of being cured if they were using an experimental treatment on her?

Then there are questions no one can answer. If Sarah is cancer-free, was it the experimental treatment that cured her, or was it the “natural treatments” she is undergoing? Does she have as much chance of survival on chemo treatments as she does on natural or no treatments? After all, cancer seemingly comes and goes as it pleases. How many of us have relatives who were pronounced to be “cancer-free” after chemo, only to have it return to a different part of the body some months or years later?

So without knowing the answers to these questions, I cannot weigh in on what’s best for Sarah, because I am neither her parent nor her doctor. I don’t think I can even make a judgment on who should have the ultimate decision about her treatment. But I do know that this is a classic case of opposing values on the part of two cultures.

In the world of the ancient Greeks, there was no division between reason (science) and religion (faith). Theirs was an integrated worldview that included the knowable world and the unknowable universe and some of their philosophers have contributed greatly to our Western philosophy. Most of them did not limit themselves to either science or faith. Aristotle, for example, was a student of physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, zoology, biology, and ethics.  Wow, I cannot even imagine a mind so brilliant that can examine issues from all these various perspectives. This definitely gives a person a different perspective than looking at it from only one point of view.

Then along came Descartes, who is often credited (or blamed) for causing the dualism between science and faith, which has greatly influenced the way we approach issues. Most people in our culture plant their feet either on one side of this fence or the other. People often think in duals, such as physics versus metaphysics, politics versus ethics, reason versus emotion, creation versus evolution, and modern medicine versus natural healing methods.

The clash between two cultures’ values is clear in the dilemma of Sarah Hershberger’s treatment: one culture values science and reason, while the other values religion and faith. Where is the Aristotelian perspective when we need it most?

Let me be clear about something before I continue. Sarah’s family is not forbidden by their community to allow chemo treatments for Sarah. Amish communities vary a great deal about which forms of modern medicine they will accept. For most Amish, their treatment choices are the same as those in the mainstream culture but they may be limited by their lack of health insurance. Some stricter communities will limit medical treatments, depending on the situation. However, even the strictest of the Amish will allow some forms of modern medicine. The decision may be made to forego open heart surgery for an older person, whose health is declining, which will often lead to a death sooner than if that person had elected the surgery. Some may even decide to forego a treatment partly because they know it will leave behind a debt for their loved ones and community members.

The Amish worldview includes knowing that death is inevitable, and they accept it as part of life and the belief that everything in a person’s life is pre-ordained. Simply put: when our time is up, we die. Their emphasis is on being ready to die.  So, for the Amish, life and death issues rest on matters of faith.

The medical community, on the other hand, values life more than anything. Theirs is the world of statistics, mathematics, science, and reason. Doctors will talk to their patients about their physical health, but not necessarily about their spiritual health.  When they deem the person does not have much of a chance to live, they may even use experimental methods, because the view is that this person has nothing to lose in at least trying the treatment. The suffering caused by the treatment is not necessarily part of the equation. Rather, the reasoning goes, a chance of life is better than death, always, even if one suffers for that chance. Sarah’s father disagreed with this point of view when he said, “If we do chemotherapy and she would happen to die, she would probably suffer more than if we were to do it this way [natural treatment] and she would happen to die.”

At this point, the situation with Sarah Hershberger is so polarized, there likely is not going to be cooperation between the parents and the medical professionals. With the parents under threat of the law, they are likely not going to bring Sarah back for the doctors to examine her. The medical community is likely not going to offer to work with the parents to find the best solution for Sarah.

I don’t know what’s right for Sarah. Even if the parents are wrong in their decision, and they are sent to jail, they will likely believe that this, too, was God’s will.

On the other hand, let’s think about if the opposite were true: Sarah is found, brought back and Marie Schimer is appointed her guardian, Sarah is forced to have treatment, suffers greatly from the chemotherapy, and then she dies. Will there be any legal action against the medical professionals? Not likely. I hope for their sakes that they have thick skins, though. They will need it in terms of public opinion.

It seems like there ought to be some middle ground. Why not find a third party to examine her, such as doctors from the Cleveland Children’s Hospital? And if it is deemed that Sarah should be appointed a legal guardian, then for goodness sakes why not appoint someone from her own community, who at least understands the Amish values?

I take a little satisfaction in this whole situation that Sarah’s family was able to slip away and there are no images of them anywhere on the Internet.  We are such voyeurs in mainstream culture, and we’re used to being able to google anyone and see images of whomever is named in the media. We cannot instantly have an image of Sarah at our fingertips, so we have to rely our own imagination of what she looks like. I know this, because I’ve looked. And I know better.

I can pretty much predict who will persevere. Faith in this case is stronger than science. Science has no way to respond to someone who believes that everything happens according to God’s will and has no fear of death.

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11 thoughts on “A Clash of Cultural Values: The Case of Sarah Hershberger”

  1. I like your perspective on this thorny issue , My fear with the ordeal at hand is the freedom of choice , for Sarah and her parents. Sarah, is the person that has to deal with all the side effects of treatment and her parents have to watch her suffer. As a cancer survivor and a bystander of a loved ones battle with cancer that he lost. I can testify that it is no walk in the park to go through treatment or to watch a loved one suffer. Quality of life is also an issue , which is better? To have a shorter life span and feel well or to live in pure misery for a few years ? A question that is a personal decision for each one of us.

    I fear this experience will cause many people of the Amish communities, to become even more wary of getting medical help when needed , due to the fear of having decisions taken away from them if their children have an illness. In the end Akron Children’s might win the battle , but not the war.

  2. Like Linsey I am a cancer survivor and a bystander of loved ones’ battles.
    I do agree so very much with Linsey’s last sentence: “In the end Akron’s might win the battle, but not the war”.

    Sending blessings,

    Jeanneke.

  3. To me, the fact that the girl doesn’t seem to want to be treated is the key here. Because of that, I support the parents in this case, had she wanted to be treated, I would have supported the hospital. Yes, she is a child but it is her life and I do think children can make much more complicated decisions than we sometimes think.

  4. I agree with Elin and Linsey. But I do not think if there needs to be a guardian, that it should be a different healthcare provider. That would do no good, having the Cleveland Clinic be her appointed guardian. Let it be someone truly impartial – a social worker, teacher (not her teacher), but not a health care provider.

  5. This is the first I’ve heard of this story so my comment may have some holes in it.
    Rights. Peoples’ rights. What a huge issue especially as of late. At least it seems so. I ask myself, “What does God say about peoples’ rights?” What does He say about death? What does He say about life? Well, this is getting to broad.
    I recall many stories in the Bible where Jesus healed people or their loved ones when He was approached with such a plea. He always had mercy on them and healed them. And none that were ill ever said, “I’m dying and I believe it’s your will.” No, they all asked for healing. It’s normal and natural to want to live and to want your children to live.
    I’m a Christian. I also believe God’s will ultimately happens in my life. But often, God has a part for me to play. It may be going to a doctor, spending more time resting, or preparing for a test. It may be taking my child for chemo. if they have cancer as a route for healing. If I didn’t do my part how would I ever truly know it was God’s will for my child to die or my negligence causing their death?
    There’s another issue here. The outrageous cost of medical care. This poor man and his wife would be responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars. How can this not be an issue for an Amish man even when it involves his child? How I hate writing that, but there it is. If the man had the money in the palm of his hand would he not immediately, even not knowing the end result, have his precious child treated? I think he would. I would. I understand the Amish community would help with costs, but that’s a lot of money. Frankly, I don’t know the whole story as to how that works. Is it those with the most give the most?
    The bottom line is what a horrible position these parents and their child are in. I have no doubt that they pray fervently for guidance. And I will pray as well.

  6. Francine, I would have to doubt that wise, loving and devout parents who pray to God for guidance would simply hand over their child to the medical industry for cancer treatment – even if they were the richest people on the planet.

    American doctors do not submit themselves and their families to standard cancer treatment, for they know it does not work.

    The three techniques allowed in this country by its very powerful medical monopoly are dangerous and promise more cancer. Chemotherapy is a hazardous material – a carcinogen – workers have to go to great lengths to protect themselves from exposure to the hazardous chemicals used… and yet they put hazardous chemicals in the bloodstreams of sick poeple? Radiation is a known carcinogen. Surgery is known to spread tumors.

    God did not create modern, processed foods like white and sparkly sugar, salt, bleached flour and plants grown on and sprayed with chemicals, etc – devoid of nutrients and rife with toxins. Cancer is a natural result of our very unnatural world.

    The Amish are wiser than most and are closer to the land. They can more easily return to simpler ways. Fruits, vegetables, greens, beans, honey, raw goat milk… Perhaps the Amish will lead the way out of the modern American health dilemma.

    “Let food be your medicine, and let medicine be your food.”

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