The Limits of Parental Discretion: The Necessaries of Life and the Stephan Case

Stephans trial

Last week dealt a major blow to anti-vaxxers everywhere when Alberta’s David and Collet Stephan were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their 19 month old son Ezekiel. Ezekiel had bacterial meningitis but rather than take him to the emergency room, they treated his illness with naturopathic remedies. By the time the Stephans were forced to acknowledge that their remedies weren’t enough, it was too late.

On March 13, 2012 Ezekiel stopped breathing. He was rushed to the hospital, eventually ending up in Calgary where doctors discovered he had very little brain activity. The baby died a few days later.

During the trial Crown Prosecutor Lisa Weich said the case isn’t about love. It’s about the Stephans’ failure to provide medical attention.

“A reasonably prudent parent would have recognized, would have foreseen that Ezekiel was at risk of danger,” she said.

Like Ms. Weich, this article isn’t disputing that David and Collet Stephan loved their son. But it appears that it was more important for them to confirm their distrust of modern medicine and the healthcare system and they were willing to sacrifice their child to do it.

David Stephan may have loved his son, but he also had a vested interest in the naturopathic remedies being used to treat him. David’s father Anthony Stephan, co-founded Truehope Nutritional Support in 1996, a company that sells nutritional supplements that are supposed to help with various physical and mental illnesses. David Stephan is the company’s current vice president.

David and Collet are also anti vaxxers, which means that they don’t believe in vaccinating children against illness. David Stephan had even said he and his wife wouldn’t vaccinate their kids after hearing various stories – stories, not scientific studies – about vaccinations causing autism.

The symptoms of meningitis are fever, vomiting, a pale blotchy distinctive rash, an inability to stay awake, severe muscle pain, irritability, light sensitivity and a stiff neck. If untreated, it can cause brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities, and even death.

Though Ezekiel had been showing the symptoms for more than two weeks and a family friend said he should be brought to the hospital, his parents decided to treat him with hot peppers, garlic, onions, and horseradish. Garlic, onions, hot peppers and horseradish aren’t remedies for meningitis. They’re the basis of a tasty stir fry.

When Ezekiel got worse, Collet Stephan brought him to naturopath Tracy Tannis. By this point the boy was so stiff he couldn’t sit in his car seat and had to be brought to the naturopath’s office on a mattress in the car. Without even examining him, Tannis ordered her secretary to prepare a strong tincture of Echinacea which Collet then treated Ezekiel with.

Tracy Tannis is now under investigation by the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta, an investigation sparked by her role in Ezekiel’s death.

Ezekiel’s parents were charged with failure to provide necessaries of life as per section 215 of the Canadian Criminal Code.

Section 215 states that a parent, guardian, or head of a family is under a legal duty to provide necessaries of life to a child under sixteen years old. If the person fails to do so “without lawful excuse” and that failure permanently endangers their health or their life, they risk a maximum five year prison term. Unlike other offenses which place the burden of proof on the prosecution, section 215 leaves it up to the accused. Once the prosecution proves the accused failed to provide necessaries of life, it’s up to the defense to prove the accused had a lawful excuse not to provide them.

It should go without saying that a distrust of modern medicine is not a lawful excuse. Drugs and medical practices go through a barrage of scientific tests before they ever touch a patient. They are also subjected to government regulation and any time anything proves to be harmful, the practice is ended or the product taken off the market.

There is no study conclusively proving that naturopathic remedies can cure fatal or disabling illnesses. Garlic, onions, and Echinacea were as likely to cure Ezekiel as good old fashioned prayer.

Many have argued that parents should have discretion over the care their child receives and that the Stephans’ conviction somehow takes away that discretion. The problem with this argument is that it denies that parental discretion as per Canadian law is not and has never been absolute. If it were there’d be no convictions for child abuse and parents would be under no obligation to feed and clothe their children if they decided their care didn’t require it.

Laws are always based on notions of reasonability according to what another reasonable person would have done in a similar situation. A reasonable person would have freaked when they saw that their baby was sick. A reasonable parent would have gone straight to the emergency room and demanded a licensed medical doctor take a look at their child.

Naturopathic remedies are fine to try on afflictions that aren’t fatal or crippling. You have a common cold? Feel free to eat a ton of garlic or feed it to your kid. You have a bruise? Rub it with chilies if you think it will help.

But if your child’s illness puts him at risk of dying or being permanently disabled, it’s time to put your pride and prejudices about modern medicine aside.

And if they’re more important to you than your kid’s life, you shouldn’t be parents.

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