Skip to main content

On June 12, 2008, Roger Matern, an 84-year-old with heart disease, visited a Montreal naturopathy clinic. He was tired and frustrated with conventional medical treatment.

Mitra Javanmardi, a veteran naturopath, recommended a concoction of nutrients, which she administered intravenously.

Sixteen hours later, Mr. Matern was dead. One of the ingredients administered, L-carnitine, was contaminated with a bacterium, causing blood poisoning and fatal toxic shock.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Javanmardi was charged with criminal negligence causing death and manslaughter. She was prosecuted because she had administered the treatment intravenously. Under Quebec’s Medical Act, naturopaths are not authorized to do so. (They are allowed to do so in most other provinces.)

After a lengthy and highly publicized trial, Ms. Javanmardi was acquitted of both charges in 2015. The Crown appealed and the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the acquittals and ordering a new trial on the charge of criminal negligence.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 5-2 decision, restored the acquittals.

That Ms. Javanmardi has walked away scot-free has outraged many.

Naturopathy is largely pseudoscientific nonsense that espouses treatment with all manner of “natural” products.

But naturopathy was not on trial.

The prosecution revolved around two fundamental legal questions: Was Ms. Javanmardi negligent? If so, did her negligence kill her patient?

Story continues below advertisement

Did she, through her actions or omissions, show wanton or reckless disregard for the life of Mr. Matern? Did the naturopath commit an unlawful act that caused the death of a person?

There is no question Ms. Javanmardi committed an unlawful act – administering a drug intravenously.

But, according to the majority on the court, IV injections are not inherently dangerous. Ms. Javanmardi estimated that she had treated about 10 patients a week for 25 years with intravenous potions, without incident.

Two other patients had received the same contaminated drug as Mr. Matern, without ill effects. And when he felt ill, Ms. Javanmardi had urged him to go to hospital.

Those are not the actions of a negligent person, or of a killer/manslaughterer.

So it’s hard to take issue with the legal ruling.

Story continues below advertisement

But the fact that the decision sticks in our collective craw is a reminder that, as Justice Horace Krever said in his landmark report on the tainted blood scandal, the courts are a terrible place to bring justice to those who have suffered medical harm.

The law is black-and-white; medicine – and even “alternative” medicine – is full of greys.

Treatments are administered even if, in many cases, we know those treatments will cause harm. The hope though is that they will prevent greater harm.

Take chemotherapy: Highly toxic poisons are used in the hope they will stop cancer from spreading. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes the treatment proves deadly.

That doesn’t make a physician negligent or a killer.

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Javanmardi could reasonably expect that the treatment would not cause harm. After all, she had done similar interventions thousands of times, albeit illegally.

Story continues below advertisement

In Quebec, naturopathy is not a regulated profession. That means anyone can hang up a shingle and consumers are free to seek their services. Other provinces recognize naturopathy as a self-regulating profession.

It’s not clear which approach is best. By licensing quackery such as naturopathy and homeopathy, governments lend them a veneer of legitimacy. Conversely, when they regulate, it can create some oversight and allow the public to seek recourse if they are harmed – if these professions take self-regulation seriously, which is not always the case.

Mercifully, most “alternative” treatments are benign, causing harm largely to the pocketbook. There are not many deaths, aside from the occasional poisoning by pathogen or broken neck during chiropractic manipulation.

Of course, there will be those screaming that mainstream medical treatment kills many more. It is true that medical care entails many risks but, as mentioned earlier, it is the potential to do good or reduce suffering, that mitigates the harm.

Did the potion that Mr. Matern received have the potential to benefit him in any way? Probably not. But, again, that was not for the court to decide. Did it hasten his death? No doubt. Was it negligent? Not really.

Being a quack does not make you a killer.

Story continues below advertisement

But if there is a codicil to the ruling of the learned justices, it should be this: Caveat emptor.

Related topics

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies