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Starchild Cherrix Case: "Alternative" Medicine V. "Quackery"?

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Should the state have the right to force a sixteen-year-old-- whose family has supported his decision to use an "alternative" treatment rather than undergo conventional cancer care-- to accept chemotherapy?

The media has covered the Abraham Starchild Cherrix case as a question of rights-- whether the parents and the teen are legally permitted to "choose" between alternative and conventional medicine.

But my colleague Trevor Butterworth at stats.org points out that the coverage has failed to examine whether the "alternative" treatment in this case is actually a genuine form of medicine of any kind-- or a sham, perpetuated by hucksters even after the man who "developed" the "treatment" died of his own cancer despite it.

As Butterworth notes, the media has a duty not just to "balance" the opposing sides of a story, but to inform consumers of the veracity and quality of the evidence supporting both positions. Instead, this has been played as a garden-variety case of alternative v. conventional medicine, where parents believe they are making the right choice for their child.

The question that hasn't been asked is: just how many times does an "alternative" treatment have to fail before it can be clearly relegated to the history of things that were once thought to work against cancer, but are now known to be ineffective? If Cherrix was using laetrile-- another cancer "cure," that the FDA managed to banish from the U.S. that has now become a synonym for quackery-- would the coverage be different?

Or are there no standards for "alternative" treatment: once there's any anecdote that favors it, is it with us forever, no matter how many studies find it worthless and no matter how many people are harmed? Reports claim that Cherrix believes there's an 80% success rate with the Hoxley method that he is using-- but there is absolutely no data to support that idea and much that refutes it.

And, unfortunately, the media has played these demonstrably dubious claims against the peer-reviewed, multiply-replicated data on conventional treatment-- making a mockery of the controls scientists use to be able to genuinely determine what works and what doesn't.

This is not about the right to choose treatment-- it is about the right to choose no treatment and potentially risk one's life. As the doctor-blogger at Respecful Insolence points out, Cherrix' parents and the court would hardly be respectful if a sixteen-year-old boy had made a similarly informed, considered decision to take methamphetamine, based on glowing reports from its users and dealers.

Many libertarians would argue that that's just fine-- we should all have that right, especially at an age at which in many states, one is legally an adult. But this story should not be played as a debate between "alternative" v. "conventional medicine." It's about the right to reject care, and also, about the right to be duped.