Alternative medicine has been a popular target of late for the ongoing “which party is more anti-science” debate. While Republicans are derided for not buying into global warming or evolution, Democrats are attracting an equal amount of ridicule for their stances on GMOs, vaccines and yes, alternative medicine.
I am not here to defend alternative medicine. It seems ridiculous to me that taking massive amounts of dietary supplements in pill form can be good for one’s health and I have long considered chiropractic an outright fraud. But I am troubled by the desire in some circles to take the power of medical choice away from patients and put it into the hands of judges and other designated experts.
Yes, many alternative treatments are fraudulent or downright dangerous, but the argument for letting a judge decide what treatments you can and can’t have is equally dangerous. It is not difficult to find a licensed physician willing to administer an unsafe and ineffective alternative treatments. Indeed, if you are a licensed chiropractor, you’re perfectly free to break babies’ necks! The authority vested in these people by the state does not guarantee infallibility, or even competence. Greater authoritarianism in medicine will not eliminate bad doctors, it will just eliminate the freedom of the consumer to choose.
We know from firsthand testimony that some people really are helped by alternative treatments, and whether it be real or simply the placebo effect is largely irrelevant as long as the patient gets relief. The state has no business denying people the opportunity to pursue the treatments they believe to have the best chance of helping them. Suppose all forms of conventional medicine have already been tried; does it then make since to forbid patients from trying alternative solutions, to legally compel them to sit quietly and wait for death?
Speaking of waiting for death, it should be noted that there is no law against sick people declining treatment altogether. If I develop cancer and choose to do nothing, I am permitted to do so. Why then, should I be prevented from trying an unconventional therapy that might actually help me?
It is arrogant to assume that a central authority can always know the best treatment for a patient. Every body is different, and our medical knowledge is still far from complete. There is every possibility that certain treatments being administered now are actually harmful, just as those from the past have been discredited. Do we really want to be in the position of mandating by law treatments that may prove deadly in the future?
The case of children is, of course, more difficult. Lawmakers have long grappled with the tension between religious freedom and child abuse when Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to allow their children to be treated for easily curable diseases. Since children cannot give informed consent, someone has to make these decisions for them; the question is whether the government is in a better position to make this decision than the parents themselves.
It is my personal opinion that when in doubt, it is better to defer to the parents’ wishes, since they know the individual circumstances of their child better than any government bureaucrat ever could.
By all means, physicians should try to reason with people, present them with the evidence and explain to them the dangers of the alternatives, but ultimately the choice must be left to the patient, or if that is not possible, with the patient’s family.
Personal health is just that – personal, and people should be free to make their own decisions on how to manage it. The down side of that is that some people will be duped into treatments that don’t work – laws against fraud and malpractice exist to try to limit the extent to which this happens, and they should be fully utilized to keep wrongdoers in check. However, the benefits of freedom are greater still. As a patient, you have the right to control your own life, and your health care decisions should not rest solely in the hands of mid-level civil servants. To put a slightly different connotation on a familiar proverb, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.