Bioethics Cancer Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Update on Katie Wernecke

Things have been very quiet as far as the story of Katie Wernecke, the 14-year-old girl with lymphoma whose parents fought a legal battle with the State of Texas to be able to choose “alternative” therapy involving high dose vitamin C, despite the fact that her conventional therapeutic options had not been exhausted and she still stood a reasonable chance of being saved with chemotherapy and radiation. More recently, we learned the sad news that her cancer had relapsed in a big way, with tumors in her chest. When last we saw her, she had written a heartbreaking story about a dying girl with cancer who made teddy bears for children with cancer, suggesting that she knows her cancer is now probably incurable.

Unfortunately, there is no new news on Katie’s condition, but I did find this news story. Apparently Katie’s parents are suing the State of Texas for trying to save her life:

HARLINGEN — The family of an Agua Dulce teenager who was taken into state custody after they refused medical treatment for her cancer has filed a federal lawsuit alleging their constitutional rights were violated.

Family lawyer Charles Bundren today declined comment on the lawsuit against state officials and two constables but said Katie Wernecke, now 15, is doing well and attending school. He would not say whether the cancer was in remission.


The lawsuit, filed May 31, claims state and county officials violated the Fourth and 14th amendments, which protect against unlawful search and seizure and guarantee the right to family privacy, by entering the Wernecke home without a search warrant and taking custody of Katie and her brothers before having a proper hearing.

“The right of a family to remain together without the coercive interference of the government is a fundamental right protected,” the suit says.

It requests unspecified financial damages.

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, would not comment on the lawsuit.

“I will say that while Katie was in our care, we did everything according to the law and according to what we determined was in her best interest,” Crimmins said.

Not being familiar with Texas law, I can’t comment on what the chances are that this suit might prevail. My best guess is that it has a low probability of success. Katie was only 12 or 13 when she was diagnosed, and upon diagnosis she had a very treatable cancer. Her parents refused radiation for her and then took off and hid when the State tried to intervene. Parental rights are not absolute. Adults have every right to refuse standard treatment, but they do not have the right to deny such treatment to their child in favor of quackery. Although I wish it were not so, sometimes it is necessary for the state to step in and assure that a child receives the treatment necessary. Unfortunately, most state laws are so weighted in favor of parental rights that parents can get away with almost anything when it comes to choosing treatment for their children. Remember, Katie’s parents rather quickly won their legal battle and took Kate to a clinic in Kansas for high dose vitamin C and other dubious “treatments” for her cancer.

The problems with the reporting of this case are twofold: First, reports treat the woo that the Werneckes pursued as though it were equivalent to choosing a different accepted treatment. It’s not. It’s no different than the reporting of the Autism Omnibus trial, where credulous bloggers lazily “present both sides” as though both sides had equal validity. Finally, the story is often framed as a case of overbearing government trampling all over parental rights when in reality it was a case of the government actually tryng to do something good and save a child’s life from the incredibly bad choices of her parents.

What I’m really curious about is what this story does not answer: How is Katie doing? Has her tumor progressed? What treatment is she receiving now?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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