Apr 27 2015

Defending Children – See, That Wasn’t So Hard

Last year two similar cases in Canada came to public attention – both involved young girls with terminal blood cancer, but ones that are very treatable. Their cancers would almost certainly result in death if they go untreated, and yet they would have about an 85% chance of survival with standard treatment. Both girls were also members of the First Nations, natives with a history of not being treated well by the Canadian government.

In both cases the family wanted to seek “traditional” treatment instead of completing chemotherapy. However, the “traditional” treatment they were seeking was holistic garbage peddled by a charlatan (who is white, and not a native) in Florida, Brian Clement. Clement is not a doctor, but claims to treat cancer with the usual assortment of popular quackery today. Recently the state of Florida accused him of practicing medicine without a license, but they then dropped the case for unknown reasons. I guess Florida just doesn’t have the political will to protect the public from harmful nonsense.

Clement’s false hope has already claimed the life of one of the girls, 11 year-old Makayla Sault died of her leukemia in January. Her mother was literally lured away from continuing chemotherapy by the promises of Clement.

What is most interesting is that the Canadian courts had an opportunity to intervene and to protect these children. They failed with regard to Sault and it is now too late for her. The second girl, whose name is not public, also was allowed to forgo chemotherapy to pursue traditional Floridian quackery. In November 2014 Ontario court Judge Gethin Edward ruled that the family has the right to deny their daughter standard medical treatment. This was done to respect the rights of the First Nations. I argued at the time, while I understand this is a sensitive issue, the rights of a young girl to live trumps everything else in such cases, and I felt this was a profound failure on the part of Judge Edward.

Edward ruled:

“It is this court’s conclusion therefore, that [the mother’s] decision to pursue traditional medicine for her daughter J.J. is her aboriginal right. Further, such a right cannot be qualified as a right only if it is proven to work by employing the Western medical paradigm. To do so would be to leave open the opportunity to perpetually erode aboriginal rights.”

Inherent in this decision is a cultural relativism with regard to science, which in my opinion is utter nonsense. Every culture has the right to assert their cultural history and values, especially with their own people. But every culture does not get to have their own science and facts. When traditional culture clashes with reality, reality has to win. There is no “Western medical paradigm.” There is science and reality vs quackery and fantasy. Of course, adults have the right to use and refuse whatever medical interventions they wish. But the state has a right and responsibility to protect children, even from the neglect and abuse of their own parents, and by extension their culture.

There are many such examples. We don’t allow members of a religion to marry young children because it is their faith. We should not allow traditional cultures to hunt whales to extinction because that is what they have always done. We shouldn’t stand by while parents allow their children to die from medical neglect because of the parents’ beliefs. Cultural sensitivity and religious freedoms are obviously important, but they are not unlimited, and there has to be a moral line that we do not allow them to cross.

Now there is a bit of good news. Judge Edward has added a “significant qualification” to his ruling.

Paul Williams, the lawyer for the First Nations family, said the clarification prevented the previous ruling from being interpreted as an “absolute” that only aboriginal rights would be considered.

“The right to use traditional medicine is part of the child’s best interests. That was clarified, it wasn’t changed,” Williams said. “I think it was a fear of absolutism. I think it was clear that nothing was absolute.”

That sound reasonable – the right are still respected, but they are not absolute. It was also added that the child’s rights  are “paramount.”  That is as it should be.

It is also reported that J.J. restarted chemotherapy in March after her cancer (predictably) returned. She is also apparently no longer seeking treatment at Clement’s clinic.


It is incredible that it took a second ruling to get this right, but at least the court got there in the end. I have to wonder what role popular criticism of the original decision played in the new “clarification.” I do think this is one of the best aspects of social media and the new openness and access to information. In the past such cases would have been local news only, and whatever horrible decisions were made would have never seen the light of public discourse. Now such cases are widely discussed on the internet, especially by those with an interest in such cases, and a broader conversation can be had. This adds a level of transparency that is much needed.

Hopefully this will establish a solid precedent (although, the legal precedent was already there). The rights of children are “paramount” and other rights, such as religious freedom, the rights of parents, and the rights of native cultures, have to always be balanced against the duty of the state to protect innocent children who cannot protect themselves.

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