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David and Collet Stephan leave the courthouse in Lethbridge, Alta., on April 26, 2016. (David Rossiter/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
David and Collet Stephan leave the courthouse in Lethbridge, Alta., on April 26, 2016. (David Rossiter/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Court was right to find parents guilty in son's meningitis death Add to ...

David and Collet Stephan failed to seek medical care for their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel, in a timely fashion and he died. For that, they were found guilty of failing to provide the necessities of life, and rightly so.

The parents’ failings were egregious: Their toddler became increasingly ill to the point where he was lethargic and stiff as a board; they were told by a nurse that the boy was likely suffering from meningitis, a life-threatening condition; and urged by a naturopath to bring the child to a doctor, but they did not, opting instead for naturopathic “treatments” such as an echinacea tincture. They didn’t call 911 until Ezekiel stopped breathing and, by the time he was airlifted to hospital, it was too late to save him.

Despite the conviction, they remain unrepentant, painting themselves as persecuted and warning that the parenting police are out to get us all.

Hardly.

The message in the conviction is consistent with what our laws and courts have said over decades in cases with similar philosophical underpinnings – parents who refuse blood transfusion, vaccination, cancer treatment and other demonstrably beneficial medical treatments for their children in favour of prayer or other nonsense: As an adult, you can have beliefs, religious or otherwise, and you can raise your children according to those beliefs, no matter how wacky, but that does not obviate the obligation to provide the necessities of life. When a child’s health and well-being are compromised, the rules change, because a guardian has responsibilities as well as rights.

Put another way, children cannot give consent to the denial of treatment, so they are entitled to the accepted standard of care. In Ezekiel’s case, he should have been treated with intravenous fluids, pain relief and antibiotics; what he got instead was chili pepper smoothies and fluids from an eye-dropper. And that is criminal. (And to those who wonder if conventional medicine could have saved the boy, the answer is: We’ll never know. The parents’ failure was not giving him a fighting chance.)

This case raises many difficult questions for regulators and policy-makers.

Is naturopathy – a belief system that has no scientific basis – a legitimate health profession? After all, in Alberta and a number of other provinces, it is recognized as such, allowing naturopaths to self-regulate.

Should Health Canada give legitimacy to the naturopathic and homeopathic concoctions such as those that were used by approving and regulating “natural health products”? Because, again, there is no scientific evidence of their benefit.

But the most important question of all is: Why have Canadians embraced so-called complementary and alternative treatments so broadly and enthusiastically?

Much of what is espoused – take care of yourself, be attuned to your body, think about where your food comes from, etc. – is quite sensible and healthy.

But there is also a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense out there, from homeopathy (with its ridiculous core belief that diluting medicine in water makes it stronger) to the rejection of vaccines as poison – much of it promoted by ‘alternative’ practitioners such as naturopaths and chiropractors, and high-profile crackpots like Dr. Mercola – that too many people embrace uncritically.

What people seem to be yearning for is some control over their health, and some hands-on care, things that are all-too-often unavailable in the rushed, paternalistic mainstream health system. They also are skeptical – and not totally without reason – of some of the machinations of pharmaceutical companies.

Pseudoscience is comforting: It’s easy to embrace, promising magic and definitive answers, not all messy and rife with unanswered questions like real science. Add to this a lot of flowery language about “natural,” “holistic” and “drug-free” treatments, and a dash of scientific illiteracy, and you have a potent cocktail that can, on occasion, have horrible consequences.

Beyond the death of Ezekiel, however, the real tragedy is that there are a lot of David and Collet Stephans out there – parents who are well-meaning but, nonetheless, harming their children.

The answer is not to prosecute and jail them all, it is to educate them, and to above all else, encourage them to be at least as doubtful and skeptical about “alternative” treatments as they are mainstream ones.

In this case, nobody has argued that the parents harmed their child deliberately but, as the prosecutor said at the end of the trial: “Sometimes love just isn’t enough.”

Sometimes – no, all the time – making the right choices to ensure a child’s well-being has to supersede all other considerations.

When you fail to do so, like Ezekiel’s parents, you have to take your medicine.

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Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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