Health law expert warns of 'pseudo-science' after Alberta child deaths

After the recent deaths of two Alberta children treated with natural remedies, a health law expert weighs in on what he describes as a trend of "pseudo-science" — and the question of whether prosecuting parents is the best way forward.

Tim Caulfield says there's 'confused messaging' about natural remedies

It's important to understand why parents are attracted to natural remedies in place of conventional medicine, says Tim Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. (Shutterstock)

The Alberta courts are trying to decide whether a parent should be held criminally responsible for the death of a child treated with natural remedies instead of conventional medicine — and it's not the only recent case.

A Calgary mother went on trial on Nov. 28 for treating her 7-year-old son who had meningitis and strep infection with dandelion tea and oil of oregano. After being bedridden for 10 days, Ryan Lovett died.

Tamara Lovett, left, was charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to her son, Ryan Lovett, right, who died in 2013. (YouTube)

Earlier this year, the parents of a southern Alberta toddler who died of bacterial meningitis were found guilty of failing to provide him with "the necessaries of life" after treating him with remedies that included hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish.

A health law expert weighs in on what he describes as a trend of "pseudo-science" — and the question of whether prosecuting parents already struggling with grief is the best way forward.

Expert weighs in

"They're both tragic, obviously. And I think it's also important to note that, in both cases, the parents clearly were thinking they were doing what was best for their child," said Tim Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in health law and policy.

"But from the point of view of the law, the primary similarity is that there was a treatment that could have been effective — antibiotics — and the application of a treatment that clearly was ineffective and had absolutely no possibility of working and no science to support it," he said.

David Stephan and his wife Collet Stephan were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life for nearly 19-month-old Ezekiel, who died in March 2012. (CBC/Facebook)

"I'm hopeful that, long-term, these kinds of cases will inform the public about what can and can't be done when treating your child.

The following is an edited transcription of Caulfield's interview on Tuesday on the Calgary Eyeopener, with CBC Radio host David Gray:

Q: There are parents who prefer natural remedies. When is the right time to stop trying alternative treatments and seek medical help?

Tim Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. (University of Alberta)

Drawing a line is going to be tough. I think that's one of the big, broader issues that these kind of cases create. Our society has become quite tolerant of this pseudo-science. We're studying this right now. There are clinics across Alberta and B.C. that advertise the use of these therapies and claim that they're effective.

Here in Alberta, homeopathy is one of the most common remedies provided by a naturopath, there's advertising on websites that suggest it's an effective form of vaccination, for example, which is absurd and dangerous.

There's confused messaging out there.   

[But] then we have to consider why parents might be attracted to these kinds of therapies. What are they missing from conventional practitioners? What philosophy draws them to it? I think we need to be open to exploring what's going on there.

Q: What good does it do to put a woman on trial who has already lost her child, who has paid that price, who has realized she's made a mistake? Is that the remedy to this problem?

Look, if she was not providing the necessaries of life — that is an infringement of the Criminal Code. Just if she had done something else — not feeding her child, or not hydrating her child, for example. And it's not like this happens a lot. In general, the courts defer to parental judgment. But in extreme cases, they feel like they must move forward with the prosecution.

But when you're talking about the kind of stuff that was done here — this stuff couldn't have worked. It's absurd. And so I hope this at least sends a flag up that parents should be very cautious when they're thinking about using these alternative treatments to treat serious disease.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener