a while ago, Die Welt reported that a girl, who would soon celebrate her 13th birthday, had died from cancer. Her mother had opted out of conventional cancer therapies; instead choosing to rely on anthroposophical mistletoe therapy in combination with diet changes. The mother didn’t think conventional treatment, offering a 70% chance of survival, was good enough; she also believed that conventional treatments would have side effects and that the daughter would possibly become sterile from them. She also believes, apparently, that the cancer had been caused by her divorce from the girl’s father.
Die 70-prozentige Überlebenschance, die man ihr zunächst in Aussicht stellte, empfand die Mutter als nicht ausreichend für ihr Kind. Dazu mögliche Nebenwirkungen wie Unfruchtbarkeit: „Dabei wollte Susanne mal eine eigene Familie haben.“ Daraufhin stellte sie Susannes Ernährung um, begann mit der anthroposophischen „Misteltherapie“. Sie glaubte fest daran, dass die Krankheit ihrer Tochter durch die Trennung von ihrem Mann im Jahr zuvor ausgelöst worden sei – und dass ihr durch alternative Heilmethoden abseits der Schulmedizin beizukommen sei.
Worth noting is that the ‘wunderheiler’ was likely not a registered physician. He may not have had any conventional medical training at all (it seems plausible he didn’t). And although he apparently recommended anthroposophical remedies, such as mistletoe therapy (iscador), he can’t have been an anthroposophically trained doctor. As far as I know, they always have conventional medical training. In contrast, this guy was just a quack, nothing more. I have yet to come across an anthroposophical physician who would recommend giving up conventional treatment of a child’s cancer and replacing it entirely with alternative ‘healing’ methods, such as mistletoe and diet. I do know of anthroposophical doctors who are in favour of abstaining from childhood vaccinations, though. To benefit spiritual maturity, among other reasons.
The question is, what can be said about parental responsibility for health, well-being and even survival of children? A parent, who honestly believes that immunizations cause greater spiritual evils (or the risk thereof) than the physical good these immunizations confer, as far as physical health is concerned, will perhaps decide not to have the child vaccinated. As long as his or her own child, or any other child in the vicinity, is not harmed by this decision, there can hardly be any formal responsibility.
One could, however, still debate the ethical implications of this decision — because making it inevitably means that the parent, knowing the risks of disease and even long-term damage or death, voluntarily consents to these risks on behalf of a child, who is too young to make his or her own decisions . But as long as there’s no actual harm, the most severe accusation would be that the parent is knowingly endangering his or her own child and other children.
Does it matter how high the risk is? How severe the potential damage is? The parent who opted out of cancer treatment effectively condemned the child to death — the risks of not receiving proper treatment were very high and the final result quite alarming. A parent who chooses to avoid vaccines also takes a risk, but a comparatively minor one. Would the morality of such a choice depend on the kind of vaccine, or the kind of disease, we are considering? Is there a difference between, e g, polio and measles? Smallpox (luckily eradicated by vaccines, thus no longer part of the vaccination programs) and chickenpox?
I’m saying the endangerment is willful, because parents who refuse to vaccinate, for example, usually know — and accept — the risk of disease and (at least) a mild form of harm. But their intent isn’t evil; in fact, they’re committing an act which could (and sometimes does) lead to what would objectively be considered an evil consequence, but they do it to achieve something good (a good whose foundation in reality is most often untenable, from an objective or scientific viewpoint). The important thing to remember, however, is that the parent acting under such beliefs — e g, that the child would suffer spiritual harm, perhaps extending into a subsequent incarnation! — would find the vaccination an unacceptable risk to take. This parent could not, in good conscience, subject his or her child to this procedure, even if objective knowledge indicates there are short term gains (but long time negative effects as far as the reincarnating spirit is concerned…).
Unlike the person acting under mental delusion, the believer knows fairly well the consequences of these actions — there are no mistakes and no pathological lapses in the perception of reality. If there’s a delusion, it’s shared by a whole community. Of course, the spiritual-medical beliefs held by members of these communities differ from the beliefs more generally held in society. The anthroposophic community in Järna, Sweden, saw a polio epidemic — the last one in Sweden — in 1977. Among waldorf families — and naturally in anthroposophic communities — refraining from vaccination is socially accepted. There’s a culture of shared beliefs which allows this particular risk-taking. In fact, some waldorf parents go to great length to ensure their children enjoy the supposed advantages of disease, for example by arranging ‘measles parties’ or get-togethers where sick children may infect still healthy children.
One would ask, of course, who in their right mind would subject their children to unnecessary risk or possibly lethal diseases and painful treatments? Well, clearly, if you believe immunizations to be a means of Ahriman to take hold of children’s souls or if you believe the word of god prohibits blood transfusions by penalty of eternal damnation, then the cost incurred by your actions may seem minor in comparison. It may even be understandable — even if one can’t condone it — that people believe suffering through disease has certain material or spiritual merits, e g, maturity, and that they’re prepared to value these merits highly. Even if they aren’t realistic about it, they may think the gains outweigh the risks.
Parents, no doubt, have to make decision all the time. Sometimes they end up making wise decision, sometimes unwise. Sometimes the consequences are dire.
But if we assume, for the sake of the argument if nothing else, that parents have duty — if not a legal duty, then at least a moral one — to make choices with the child’s interest as the paramount concern, then is there a moral difference between choosing to, e g, avoid vaccination because one believes in some vague idea about living ‘naturally’ and of choosing to abstain because of a conviction that vaccines carry ahrimanic forces destructive to the child’s spirit?