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Fight Intensifies Over Who Acts for Children
Judge Lets Teen Waive Usual Cancer Care; Trial Set for August

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; B08

After four rounds of chemotherapy, Starchild Abraham Cherrix had had enough. The Virginia boy's 15-year-old body was exhausted, his 6-foot frame down to 122 pounds, his hair falling out and his stomach ravaged.

"I truly believe that this massive dose of chemo and radiation would finish me off completely," Cherrix, now 16, said yesterday, describing the further treatment his doctors prescribed. "This is my body, and my parents have the right to help me take care of it the way they are."

Yesterday, an Accomack County judge agreed that Abraham, who is refusing conventional medical treatment, did not have to report to a Norfolk hospital to undergo more chemotherapy and radiation for Hodgkin's disease. The order reversed a decision Friday by a juvenile court judge that Abraham's parents had to present him to doctors there by 1 p.m. yesterday. A trial is set for Aug. 16.

The decision further escalated a court battle that has captured the attention of Virginia's governor and pitted parental rights vs. government intervention on behalf of a child. Abraham and his parents are rejecting conventional therapy in favor of an alternative treatment gleaned from a clinic in Mexico that they insist can save his life. Virginia officials say he and his parents are endangering that life.

With politicians of both parties weighing in yesterday, the battle began to take on overtones of the case of Terri Schiavo. A dispute over the brain-damaged Florida woman's medical care led to multiple court decisions and high-profile political involvement.

"It's sort of the same general question of who makes medical decisions for people who can't make decisions for themselves," said Amy McGuire, a specialist in medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. But there are also "fundamental differences" between the two cases, she said.

Abraham's brush with the medical system began when the previously healthy teenager received the Hodgkin's diagnosis last August after a mass was found on his neck. A pediatric oncologist at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk recommended chemotherapy and then, if needed, radiation. The family lives in Chincoteague, on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Abraham's father, Jay Cherrix, said he was devastated watching his son struggle with the chemotherapy. "We would carry him in at night and pray he wouldn't die before the next morning," Cherrix said.

After the therapy shrank the tumors but did not eliminate all signs of the disease, the oncologist recommended radiation and more chemotherapy, according to court documents and the family.

The oncologist, Rebecca Byrd, did not return telephone calls yesterday, and a spokeswoman for the hospital declined to comment on the case.

Abraham began researching an alternative treatment that consists of herbal supplements and an organic diet free of processed sugar. The treatment was initiated by Harry Hoxsey, a former Texas cancer clinic operator who was accused by the Food and Drug Administration of peddling worthless medicine -- and who died of cancer.

But Abraham's father became a believer in the Hoxsey method when the family traveled in March to the clinic in Mexico. "I've talked to the people who survived, and not only did they survive, they didn't have any side effects," he said.

With his family's support, Abraham began the Hoxsey regimen several months ago. His father says Abraham's tumors continue to grow, but more slowly.

Byrd reported the family to the Accomack County Department of Social Services, according to court documents, and after an investigation, the department accused the parents of medical neglect. The department's director did not return telephone calls yesterday.

A juvenile court judge not only agreed that Abraham's parents were neglecting his health, but several months ago he gave the department joint custody of the boy. On Friday, Judge Jesse Demps ordered Abraham's parents to bring him to the hospital yesterday and to consent to whatever treatment the hospital deemed necessary.

Yesterday's decision by Accomack County Circuit Court Judge Glen Tyler returned Abraham to the full custody of his parents in addition to overturning Friday's order.

Under U.S. Supreme Court and state court decisions, legal and medical experts said, parents are usually allowed to make medical decisions for their children. But some states, including Virginia, allow courts to override parental decisions if the child's health is endangered.

"Parents have the right to make decisions on behalf of a minor, but it's not an absolute right," McGuire said.

Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) argued for the rights of Abraham's parents in a brief his office filed yesterday before the Circuit Court decision. "It is a long-recognized principle that parents act in the best interests of their children," said the brief, which quoted U.S. Supreme Court and other decisions.

McDonnell called on Tyler to overturn Friday's ruling, saying that the 10 days the Cherrix family had to appeal would be rendered moot if Abraham were forced to undergo treatment yesterday. The attorney general later said he applauded yesterday's decision.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) also discussed the case when asked about it on the "Ask the Governor" program on Washington Post Radio. "This is a hard, complicated case," said Kaine, adding that he is "confident that we have a good system here in Virginia and that the right decision will be made."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company