An Alberta court case put alternative healing on trial

Opinion by Gillian Steward

Parents have a legal responsibility to seek conventional medical treatment for their seriously ill children even if it goes against their deepest beliefs.

That’s the precedent-setting take away from a trial in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge, which ended last week with a jury delivering a guilty verdict for the parents of a 19-month-old boy who died from bacterial meningitis after his parents opted to take him to a naturopath and treat him with home remedies rather than take him to hospital.

The parents, David and Collett Stephan, were accused of “failing to provide the necessaries of life,” a section of the criminal code that is usually applied to adults who mistreat their elderly parents or parents who neglect their children.

In this case the child, Ezekiel, was not abused or neglected. His parents by all accounts were loving and attentive. But they also decided that mainstream medical treatment would harm the boy so he was never seen by a licensed medical doctor and was never vaccinated.

“This is a warning to parents that the Crown in Alberta takes these cases very seriously and is willing to prosecute,” Juliet Guichon, a medical ethicist at the University of Calgary, said during a telephone interview.

A similar case is scheduled to go to trial in Calgary later this year. Tamara Lovett faces the same charge as the Stephans because her 7-year-old son, Ryan, died in 2013 after suffering from strep throat for 10 days. It is alleged that Lovett did not take him to a doctor or emergency room but treated him instead with home remedies.

Guichon says these cases are different than the instances where Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse permission for a blood transfusion for their children because of religious beliefs. In those cases, the child has come to the attention of medical professionals, who can then advocate for the child. But in these cases the children never made it that far.

It was already too late by the time someone with authority could step in, Guichon said.

The Stephans are Mormons, part of a large community of Mormons in Southern Alberta. But the Mormon religion does not forbid vaccination or conventional medical treatment. It appears the Stephans clung to a personal creed that sees conventional medicine as harmful and to be avoided at all costs.

Several years ago David Stephan’s father, Tony, fought a long legal battle with Health Canada over regulation of the marketing of his brand of vitamin supplements called EMPowerplus, which he claimed cured mental illness. Stephan senior was eventually acquitted and still promotes the product, which is also known as Truehope.

At one point the Stephans treated Ezekiel with it when he was suffering with meningitis, but to no avail.

If the toddler had been vaccinated he might still be alive.

“For parents like the Stephans conventional medical treatment is never an option … it is like a religion,” Guichon said.

Indeed, a study conducted by researchers at University of Toronto and McMaster University found selected groups of alternative medicine students did not drop their opposition to vaccination even after being presented with detailed evidence on the effectiveness of the polio vaccine and the testimony of a woman who was born before the vaccine was available and was partially paralyzed by the disease.

In Ontario, the same sort of belief system was at work when two indigenous children died from cancer after their parents refused to consent to chemotherapy that most likely would have saved them and instead opted for “traditional” treatments. But those parents were not charged with failing to provide the necessities of life.

In Alberta, a jury composed mostly of women decided a child’s right to life trumps his parents’ deeply held beliefs. In less than 24 hours they rendered a guilty verdict that could see the Stephans, who have three other children, go to prison for up to five years.

The jury made it clear that helpless children should not be sacrificed on the altar of their parents’ misguided beliefs, no matter how sincere they may be.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.