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Last April, a jury found David and Collet Stephan guilty of “failing to provide the necessaries of life,” under section 215 of the Criminal Code, when their nearly 19-month-old son Ezekiel died in March 2012 of meningitis. Rather than pursuing traditional health care for their son, they made a series of decisions about his health care from February 27, 2012 — the day little Ezekial’s symptoms emerged ‑‑ through to the evening of March 13, 2012, when he stopped breathing and they called 911. Those decisions involved treating him with, among other things, hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish, despite a nurse family friend suggesting his symptoms might point to meningitis. Their defence at trial was that they had pursued a legitimate, alternative course of treatment. 

The Stephans are no strangers to alternative health care. David Stephans’ family owns “Truehope,” a company that sells products pitched to naturally remedy a range of mental health disorders, from ADD to stress. Truehope’s website says it:

“[w]as established to set and define the global standard of what true healing means by designing and applying evidence‑based products and professional quality programs, accessible and tailored to the needs of men, women and children, providing them the knowledge and education necessary for individual ownership of health.” [emphasis added]

The problem is of course that Ezekial was a baby — not yet old enough to make his decisions, not yet up to the task of “individual ownership of health.”

The case was widely reported at the time of the jury’s guilty verdict; the findings of fact were released by the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta on June 8, 2016. Notably, the Honourable Mr. Justice R.A. Jerke found that:

[37] Mr. and Ms. Stephan did not provide Ezekiel with medical attention. This was a failure of their legal duty to provide necessaries of life. It was a marked departure from the required standard of care. It is morally blameworthy conduct. [emphasis added]

On June 20, 2016, the Stephans released a video on Facebook in which they say that this is about “parental rights” and link their situation to the anti‑vaccination movement. They further blame their son’s death on the ambulance that arrived over two weeks after he became sick, alleging that it was not properly equipped to deal with his illness. And they most definitely see a moral component to this — but from a very different perspective, as their Prayers for Ezekial Facebook site demonstrates. 

So what next for the Stephans? Well, sentencing arguments were heard last week and Justice Jerke issued his sentence on Friday: David Stephans will spend four months in jail and Collet received three months of strict house arrest, so that she can care for their other children. Both will be on probation for two years beyond the sentence and will complete 240 hours of community service by 2018.  

This is an extraordinarily sad story, generating much discussion in the media about alternative health care and the rights of parents and minors to make decisions to use it. 

However, this story prompted a very personal response for me. As caregiver for my husband, currently being treated by cancer, the pressure from all (non‑medical) sides to give serious consideration to alternatives to standard medical treatment has been almost as stressful as the diagnosis itself.

Indeed, we have been left feeling somehow “morally blameworthy” for not wholeheartedly embracing all suggestions. 

Everyone — family, friends and literally strangers on the train — has weighed in. Suggestions have ranged from recommendations to use cancer cures from other cultures; to methods to ameliorate symptoms that Jack has not experienced; to ways to boost aspects of regular health that doctors have told us risks spreading the cancer faster or reducing the impact of chemo and radiation. 

Each suggestion was made from a place of caring — of this we have no doubt. And many have been made once only and very gently at that. Others, however, have been insistent and persistent. Imagine your mother saying “eat your broccoli” but being able to communicate this message multiple times each day through all manner of social media, text, email, by telephone and in person. And rallying all your other relatives to relay the same message. It’s a lot. 

With each suggestion, we have done some Internet research and if we find any medical basis to the suggestion at all, we raise it with the oncologists. As we are not experts ourselves, we think the responsible course of action is to rely on their opinions. The way we see the world, health care is not religion. Belief in it will not make it cure you. Just as horseradish does not cure meningitis, apricot kernels, cannabis oil and PH balancing do not cure cancer, as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre tells us in an article debunking three “natural cures.” These are just three of the myriad paths down which well‑meaning people have tried to lead us.

Supporting loved ones through times of failing health is difficult. The Stephans learned this the hard way with catastrophic results. But the next time a friend, family member or neighbour is ill, don’t assume you know the kind of support they need. I agree with Truehope that people should to some degree “own their own health.” For me, this means making responsible decisions based on the range of information available — both medical and paramedical.  

Law and morality do not and should not go hand in hand. Yes, in this case, Justice Jerke found the Stephans morally blameworthy at the same time as they were found criminally blameworthy. But as Jack and I have experienced, morally judging someone for their acceptance — or rejection — of alternative health care strikes at the very core. And while I’m in no way condoning what the Stephans have done, I am left reflecting whether is it appropriate or even necessary for morality to be addressed in the context of criminal justice.

What I am very clear on is that promoting alternative health care should not become the way to say “I care and I want to help.” Bring back the casserole, I say!

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice — the application of law to an individual’s specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

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Pro Bono

Pro Bono is a monthly column written by lawyers and legal experts at Iler Campbell LLP that explores the murky legal waters activists regularly confront in doing their work.

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Celia Chandler

Celia Chandler is a contributor to rabble’s Pro Bono column. She joined Iler Campbell LLP, a law firm specializing in co-op, non-profit, and charitable law, in 2005, and was called to the bar...

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