Skip to main content

Udo Schuklenk is Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics and professor of philosophy at Queen's University, and joint editor-in-chief of the journals Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics.

In what has been described as a precedent-setting case, Judge Gethin Edward of the Ontario Court of Justice ruled on Friday that aboriginal parents are well within their right to remove their child from hospital care and place it into an "alternative healing" outfit. In the case he was presiding over, the healing outfit is actually registered as a massage parlour in Florida. The "doctor" treating the child has no medical qualifications; his qualifications are from a mail-order degree-mill "university."

The 11-year-old child suffers from childhood leukemia. Experts concur that chemotherapy offers a 95-per-cent likelihood of complete remission of the cancer. It is the gold standard of care under such circumstances. The family in question has decided instead to transfer the child to said alternative healing outfit. The Hamilton-based Children's Aid Society decided not to intervene, because the parents were providing "care" to their child. Apparently to the Children's Aid Society it didn't matter at all what the evidence of success for the parental 'care' was. It turns out that it is nonexistent. According to medical specialists, another aboriginal child also treated in said alternative-healing facility has since experienced a serious deterioration in her health because leukemia has returned with a vengeance. The family paid close to $20,000 for the non-treatment of their child by the Florida-based operator of said massage parlour.

It goes without saying that cases such as these are tragic. They point to a likely breakdown in communications between the health-care professionals and the families.

Judge Edward reportedly accepted much of the argument driving the family's decision. He claimed that scientific evidence is apparently "completely foreign" to aboriginal people. He seems oblivious to this claim's insult to the majority of aboriginal people who don't take their children from hospital beds to Florida-based massage parlours. Or to aboriginal people working in universities and schools as science teachers. Judge Edward also harped on for quite some time about traditional methods of healing, conveniently ignoring that the Florida-based massage parlour isn't a traditional aboriginal medicine outfit – it's run by a white man who visited aboriginal communities, peddling his thoroughly Western wares to the gullible.

Here is a quote that is indicative of the judge's thinking: "Maybe First Nations culture doesn't require every child to be treated with chemotherapy and to survive for that culture to have value." Apparently this is also what's of greater importance to aboriginal leaders in this case. Six Nations Chief Ava Hill and New Credit First Nations Chief Bryan Laforme have been quoted as saying: "This is monumental, it reaffirms our right to be Indian and to practise our medicines in the traditional way." The child in question clearly has been reduced to being a pawn in a greater political struggle.

To Judge Edward and Chiefs Hill and Laforme, child welfare is not what's primarily at stake, but the survival of aboriginal society. A nice sentiment so long as you aren't a vulnerable child desperately needing proven medical care. Surely, the ethically relevant question here is this: Should we, as a society, override parental care decisions for their children in cases where there is overwhelming evidence that they are harming their children irreversibly, or, as in our case, where the children would face high risk of death? Aboriginal communities need to ask themselves this very same question. It may well be that treaty rights entitle aboriginal parents to remove their children from hospitals and deliver them into the hands of quacks, but achieving this truly is a Pyrrhic victory.

Surely the children's (objective) best (survival) interests trump parental best intentions, parental ignorance, parental fanaticism, parental scepticism with regard to mainstream medicine, etc. Hospitals routinely override parental decisions by Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse life-preserving blood transfusions for their children. And they are right to do so.

There is no parental right to harm your children. Since when has the life of a child become so cheap that we leave it to misguided parents who wish to do as they see fit, evidence be damned?

The apparent "justification" here is that it is an aboriginal child. Let us all hope that this judgment won't stand.