Politics & Policy

Hospitals Aren’t Prisons

Brett and Naghmeh King speak with reporters after being released from prison. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
When parents are arrested for seeking treatment for their child, state-run health care has gone too far.

Last Thursday, five-year-old Ashya King was kidnapped from his hospital room at Southampton General Hospital in the United Kingdom. But the kidnappers were not bent on harming the boy; they were, in fact, his concerned parents, Brett and Naghmeh King, who say that they took him from the hospital in a last-ditch attempt to pursue what they believe is a promising alternative treatment for his brain tumor. Proton-beam therapy is relatively new and not offered at Southampton General Hospital, and the doctors there reportedly questioned its healing potential in Ashya’s case.

Their action set off an international manhunt for the King family, resulting in the arrest of Ashya’s parents in Spain. Brett and Naghmeh were forced to spend two days in a Spanish prison, separated from their dangerously ill son. After international outrage erupted, the Crown Protective Services (CPS) quickly backtracked and dropped their controversial arrest warrant.

In the United States, cases similar to Ashya’s have been popping up with worrisome regularity. Consider, for instance, the Justina Pelletier saga that came to a close earlier this summer. The Boston Globe reported in late 2013 that Justina’s story was one of five similar cases involving Boston Children’s Hospital over the last two years. Medically based custody cases occur at other hospitals around the United States as well. Parents are growing wary of the medical community’s intrusion into their private decisions regarding various reasonable treatments.

Some on the right have also voiced concern that such abuses on the part of the medical community will only become more common as the United States shifts toward a more centralized medical system under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.K. operates under a similar public health-care system, run by the National Health Service (NHS). It was an NHS panel — not unlike the much-derided “death panels” here in the United States — that made the decision to refuse the request of Ashya’s for the proton-beam-therapy, forcing his parents to consider options abroad while they struggled to figure out how to pay for the treatments.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron expressed concern about the response of the medical community and the CPS. In a tweet, he welcomed “the prosecution against #AshyaKing’s parents being dropped. It’s important this little boy gets treatment & the love of his family.”

According to the Telegraph, Sarah Wollaston MP, chairman of the parliamentary health select committee in the United Kingdom, commented: “Anyone looking at this case would feel that the top priority has to be to reunite a frightened little boy with his parents.” She continued: “It cannot be right to criminalise these parents in the way that has seen them handcuffed.”

But there are still concerns that the public is not hearing both sides of the story fairly. Owing to confidentiality regulations, Southampton General Hospital may not be able to respond adequately to the allegations being hurled at them by the public and the media.

Dr. Douglas Diekema, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, explains to National Review Online: “If parents attempt to remove a child from the hospital, and in doing so deprive the child of important treatments, that might justify attempts to bring the child back. For example, if the child was dependent on tube feedings and the parents had not been trained to care for the lines and provide the feedings outside of the hospital, the hospital would have grounds for calling police to have the child returned until they could assure that the child would not come to significant harm by being discharged.”

However, in a video posted shortly before his arrest, Brett King pointed out that Ashya was being attentively cared for by his family. “You can see my son is not neglected, he’s doing very well,” he commented, pleading with the United Kingdom to call off the search. “We just want the best medical treatment,” he explained.

All currently available evidence points to Ashya’s parents’ exemplary intentions in removing Ashya from Southampton General Hospital. In his video, Brett King expressed concern that Ashya had just “been processed” by the NHS and the medical community, without adequate concern for his personal situation.

Stories like the Kings’ should cause concern among citizens of the United States and warn us of the potential harm of increasing government involvement in personal medical decisions. Different cases will have different facts, but when the first impulse of a hospital administration when parents remove a child is to call the cops, that should tell us something about the arrogance of power that results from government domination of health care.

— Caroline Craddock is an Agostinelli Fellow and research intern at National Review.


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