If parents want to decline cancer treatment for their child in favor of herbs, is that religion news?

It’s a decision that even Solomon might find challenging.

On one side is a 14-year-old girl with a life-threatening brain tumor and a hospital that wants to save her. On the other are the girl’s parents who also want to save her, albeit through naturopathic methods instead of chemotherapy.

Then take it all to court and you have a fascinating story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about doctors versus parents and a 14-year-old who’s going irreversibly blind in the meantime.

But there’s one huge hole in this narrative. See if you can spot it:

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- On the last Tuesday in March, in an eighth-floor courtroom high above a dense fog hiding downtown Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Magistrate Ginny Millas faced a weeping mother and a father so anguished he struggled to speak.
During two days of testimony, Millas had listened to people argue the fate of a 14-year-old girl with a brain tumor.
Cleveland Clinic specialists say chemotherapy is the only way to treat Zara Ali's tumor, save her failing eyesight and possibly her life.
Her parents have resisted. They've been doctoring their daughter with "natural and holistic medicine," gentler remedies they believe will heal her. Herbal cures have long been part of Zara's family life and are in keeping with their religion, said her father, who came to court each day wearing a red fez, as many Moorish Americans do.

What religion, you might ask while perusing this story. And therein lies the problem. We’re not told. Can we agree that this is a rather essential fact to leave out?

There are no obvious heroes and villains in this story.
This is a story of a fierce clash of beliefs. On one side, there is trust in Western medicine and the authority of physicians and courts; on the other, a faith in alternative medicine and the freedom to decide what's best for your child.
It's the story of a frightened girl in the middle whose options are few. A girl doctors say is running out of time.

We learn further down in the story that the parents’ idea of medical treatment is using herbs and essential oils, such as frankincense, to treat the tumor. As the tumor grew, the hospital lost patience and called the local children and family services hotline to report child abuse on behalf of the parents.

The further you read, the crazier the parents sound as they represent themselves as part of a “Moorish” country. Still, can the state compel any parents to allow medical treatment, especially something as dicey as chemotherapy?

To the reporter’s credit, she included an anecdote from a 2013 case involving an Amish child with cancer whose parents –- after witnessing their daughter greatly suffer after chemo treatments – -pull the child out of treatment and go underground for two years to avoid imprisonment. Not only did the cancer disappear when the Amish parents tried more holistic remedies, but the case against the parents was dismissed.

Thus, it is possible that the parents of the 14-year-old now under discussion could be right in refusing chemo for their daughter. The reporter also quotes from an academic expert, who says Moors have relied on homeopathic remedies for nearly a century.

Finally, though, we get to the part of the story where we hope to connect the parents’ actions with some kind of religious beliefs.

Moorish Scientists are members of a religious practice that borrows heavily from Islam, and was founded in Chicago in 1925 by the charismatic son of former slaves, known to followers as Prophet Noble Drew Ali. He teaches that all blacks have Moorish roots, specifically in the "Moroccan Empire" (hence the fezzes and other ceremonial garb), but were stripped of their Muslim identity through slavery.
The Prophet "had a profound influence on W.D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad, who were both members of [the Moorish Science Temple of America] before they established the more militant Nation of Islam," writes biographer Sholomo B. Levy. He also helped establish "African Americans as one of the largest segments of Muslims in the United States."
Today, the Moorish movement is "radically fractured and diverse," said Dew, not unlike Christianity, which is made up of thousands of kinds of Christians.

Comparing a black nationalist movement to Christianity is a weird set-up that doesn’t really work. I googled the movement and found plenty of information here and here about the Moors, both alleging that its adherents are a bit loose when it comes to obeying local, state and federal law.

I was left confused by how religious this group really is and if they were claiming to be Muslim or something else. The story also wasn’t clear about how the Moorish identity twinned with natural remedies or whether the herbs-and-scents stuff was a religious practice. (The video that goes with this piece was the closest I could find to tying it all  together). Even if their practices are religious, can they compel their daughter to follow these beliefs when they may lead to her death?

The story ends with this:

Prosecutor Amy Carson took a Good Cop approach. They wanted Millas to compel medical treatment but not take Zara from her parents. Given the possible side effects of chemotherapy, the teen would benefit from their "loving care."
Though she appreciated the Alis' religious beliefs, "there is settled case law that the religious faith of the parents ... does not permit [them] ... to expose the child to progressive ill health and death, which I think is the case here."

But the parents –- who are presented as true nut cases by the conclusion of the report -– are still fighting the magistrate’s decision to order chemo. As another hearing is scheduled, the daughter’s eyes grow worse and worse.

The story portrays the judge as being beyond patient with the parents as they stall for time and dither on which herbal remedy might work. As a reader, you seethe with frustration. There’s no answer at the end; only a ticking clock for this unfortunate child who may end up blind before anyone is allowed to intervene to save her.

Writing up such an awful situation with its many details is tough for even the best writer and the Plain Dealer does a very good job.

In the end, I'm just not sure it's a religion story, even though the parents' beliefs are portrayed as steeped in faith. But what faith? And is there a holy text somewhere that forbids medicine?

The Plain Dealer was bold to take this story on and assign a writer to it. I only wish the religious facts had been clarified, as it’s tough to know what we’re dealing with. Is it some mix of nature beliefs and Islam? Or something else?

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