by Barry Cooper
May 13, 2016
Lisa Weich said the case was “incredibly sad.” She was the Crown prosecutor in the conviction of David and Collet Stephan in Lethbridge for failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son Ezekiel, prior to his death from meningitis in March 2012.
The jury foreman who announced the verdict, and the judge who received it, were choked up. Several jurors were in tears. Sadness over the death of a toddler was compounded by having convicted two parents who loved him.
In her summation to the jury, Weich said that the issue was whether Ezekiel’s life had been endangered by his parents: “a reasonable, prudent parent would have recognized, would have foreseen, that Ezekiel was at risk of danger.” If Ezekiel’s parents were prudent, they would have taken him to the hospital. Because he died, the conviction was obviously just.
Matters were more complicated. As commentator Karen Selick has pointed out, juries in Canada can judge the applicability of the law, as well as the facts. However, anyone who points this out in court can be held in contempt. No juror judged the justness of the law, but the obvious injustice of the conviction likely explains the tears.
Other circumstances in this case also deserve notice. First, Ezekiel’s parents used naturopathic medicine, thus attracting the hostility of clinical, mainstream, allopathic, scientific etc., physicians and their supporters.
Naturopaths (as their name suggests) see their job as assisting the natural healing ability of the body. This is what Hippocrates, the father of medicine, meant when he said “let food be your medicine.” A generation ago, my father, a surgeon and unsympathetic to what we now call alternative medicine, treated my sisters and me according to the dictum that “most things are better by morning.”
For naturopaths, high-tech physicians and surgeons are needed when the human body is overwhelmed by emergency trauma or disease. No one can use a plant such as arnica to repair a broken leg.
As the president of the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta, Beverly Huang, said, “our doctors are required to understand the limitations of their practice.” Mainstream physicians do not reciprocate.
In a letter to Huang, drafted by an Ontario MD, several of them called for an investigation of a naturopath who had told Ezekiel’s parents he should be taken to a hospital emergency room if they suspected he had meningitis. A couple of days later, the parents obtained an echinacea tincture from the naturopath’s clinic.
The complainants pointed out “that should our work fall below the standard of care,” they would be disciplined. The College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta must investigate whether the Lethbridge naturopath may have borne some responsibility for Ezekiel’s death.
Other commentators were less subtle. Tim Caulfield, director of the University of Alberta Health Law and Science Policy Group, explained that naturopathy is “like a religion to them.” Caulfield, a lawyer and not a religious studies scholar, seems to equate religion with belief in things he doesn’t believe in. Anything other than mainstream medicine, he calls “quackademics.”
My colleague, University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon, believes “there is an element of irrationality in the rejection of physician advice.” She wondered “if it’s a distrust of people in authority generally.”
What is distrusted is the superiority assumed by so many mainstream physicians. And it is entirely warranted. A few days ago, a study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine reported that, after heart disease and cancer, medical error is the third leading cause of death.
Our fervent critics of naturopathy in the mainstream medical community might heed Jesus’ words in Luke: “physician, heal thyself.” Or at least get off your high horse.
Barry Cooper is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.