All child deaths due to illness are a tragedy, but some tragedies are more pronounced than others.
When a child’s death could have been properly prevented through medical intervention which was deliberately refused by the children’s parents, most of us are at least shocked, if not outraged.
This week David and Collet Stephan of Lethbridge, Alberta were convicted for failing to provide the “necessaries” (sic) of life under s. 215 of the Criminal Code. This section is used more commonly to address insufficient feeding for underweight babies, babies drowning in bathtubs, and even with the risk of physical abuse by parents and protective intervention.
The Stephans were charged for another reason, the failure to provide medical care to their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel. They’re not the first to be charged for this reason, and parents have recently been convicted under this section for a four-year-old boy who fell down the stairs and subsequently died due to his injuries, and another 19-month-old boy who died from full thickness burns after his mother refused to obtain medical treatment for him.
Unlike some of these other s. 215 cases around medical issues, the Stephans were motivated in part by ideology. They can be described as “anti-vaxxers,” who don’t believe in vaccinations for their children. You see, Ezekiel died from meningitis, a condition which is entirely preventable through the use of vaccines.
When their neighbour, a registered nurse in Alberta, told the Stephans that the child might actually be suffering from meningitis, the parents shrugged this off. They had their alternative remedies. Things like ginger root, maple syrup, olive-root extract, and horseradish smoothies.
Sounds delicious. Not sure I’d want to put my child’s life in the hands of a few smoothies though.
But the Stephans had a secret weapon. Their family firm manufactures a product called EMPowerplus. A closer look at the ingredients illustrates that this pill is not much more than a multivitamin, with some herbs and minerals for good measure.
The Stephans had essentially put their son’s life in the hands of a Flintstones vitamin. What’s scarier is that EMPowerplus may have been responsible for the death of another child in B.C. in 2012.
Medical quackery has always been around. Some would argue that prior to the scientific era, most medicine was all quackery, and there’s probably some truth to that. In the modern era, there’s far less room to risk the lives of minors due to unfounded fears and superstitions.
Some people are pushing back. After a primary school in Melbourne, Australia experienced a smallpox epidemic, with 25% of the children getting sick, Jeffrey Kluger of TIME stated,
Now and then, in just the right situations, there’s a lot to be said for intolerance—especially when it comes to the safety of kids. We don’t tolerate bullying in schools on the false belief that a few scuffles can build character. We don’t tolerate smoking on playgrounds because parents should have the right to determine the tobacco habits of their second-graders.
And we shouldn’t—but too often still do—tolerate parents who deny established science and refuse to vaccinate their school-age children, potentially endangering every other child in the school and the community beyond as well.
But the anti-vaxxers still won’t listen.
Studies demonstrate that no matter how much education or information parents opposed to vaccinations are provided, they do not change their minds. If anything, they become even more entrenched in their positions, the very definition of radicalization.
Tara Hills, one of the few anti-vaxxers who has publicly reneged on her position, explained her dilemma on The Scientific Parent,
I jumped on Google to type in “child cough.” My kids had all but one symptom of pertussis, none of them had the characteristic “whoop.” But they had everything else.
We had vaccinated our first three children on an alternative schedule and our youngest four weren’t vaccinated at all. We stopped because we were scared and didn’t know who to trust. Was the medical community just paid off puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy? Were these vaccines even necessary in this day and age? Were we unwittingly doing greater harm than help to our beloved children? So much smoke must mean a fire so we defaulted to the ‘do nothing and hope nothing bad happens’ position.
For years relatives tried to persuade us to reconsider through emails and links, but this only irritated us and made us defensive. Secretly, I hoped I would find the proof I needed to hold the course, but deep down I was resigned to only find endless conflicting arguments that never resolved anything. No matter if we vaccinated or not, I thought, it would be nothing more than a coin toss with horrible risks either way.
The author of the vaccination education study stated in subsequent interviews that education may not be the solution to the problem, “Other policy measures might be more effective.”
That’s where the law comes in.
Michelle Hauser discusses the Stephan’s case with her own personal narrative in, “It can be dangerous when Dr. Google’s on call.” She thinks the court should apply leniency in sentencing, because “They’ve already paid the ultimate price for their foolishness and hopefully the country has heard the wake-up call.”
There’s reason to think that the country has not. There are already 3 other cases underway in Alberta, all for failing to seek medical care.
It’s also questionable whether the Stephans have learned from their foolishness. On April 27, 2016, David Stephan published a public Facebook post, which appears to express no remorse or understanding about why his actions were wrong.
He refers to the actions of the Crown as “deception, drama and trickery,” and describes the decision as “a dangerous precedent being set in Canada,” where people will be forced to conduct “parenting as seen fit by the government.” His post re-posts, or quotes the post of another individual, with a link to a review of Death by Medicine.
The modern medical system is far from perfect, with much too much emphasis on pharmaceutical intervention rather than preventative care. Adverse drug reactions and medical errors do occur.
But relying on “Dr. Google” is infinitely worse. Death, in reaction to an ineffective horseradish smoothie, is probably the greatest adverse medical error you can experience.
The Crown relied heavily in their submissions that sometimes love just isn’t enough. “Parents still have to follow the standard of care that is set by the criminal law,” said Lisa Weich, Crown prosecutor.
The principles of sentencing under s. 718 of the Code contains, among other provisions, the need for denunciation, deterrence, and promoting a sense of responsibility. David Stephan has already indicated a very low likelihood of rehabilitation, as do anti-vaxxers generally.
This is the type of case which demands the maximum sentence of 5 years in imprisonment. There are children out there, somewhere in Canada, who are counting on it.