Eighteen-month-old Ezekiel Stephan’s body was stiff, he refused to eat and was lethargic for weeks leading up to his death from meningitis. The toddler’s parents – now on trial for charges of failing to provide the necessities of life – allegedly turned to natural remedies, feeding him water with maple syrup and smoothies with berries, garlic and ginger root.
Ezekiel’s health declined in a downward spiral until his death in March 2012. Now, bioethicists say the Canadian case is stirring up discussion about how parents’ medical beliefs shouldn’t wade into the care of kids’ well-being, especially in severe cases like Ezekiel’s.
“You can’t challenge the idea that they loved their child and were trying to do things that were according to their beliefs. But when you have a child who is not responding and is so stiff, you can’t get him in the car, you have to have an obligation to take the child to the hospital,” Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at New York University, said.
“Alternative treatments need to have some limits and those limits are particularly evident when you have babies, children and minors involved,” Dr. Kerry Bowman told Global News. He’s a bioethicist and professor at the University of Toronto.
David Stephan and his wife Collet are pleading not guilty to the charges stemming from Ezekiel’s death. Media reports from the trial said that the couple preferred naturopathic therapies because they had negative experiences with the conventional medical system.
In the controversial case, reports even allege that they fed him water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries and a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horse radish root, hot peppers, mashed onion and ginger root.
(For their part, the Stephans have disputed these claims, calling them an “intentional dissemination of information” that’s “distorted.”
“First off, anyone in their right mind would see how ridiculous this is, and if it wasn’t such a serious matter, it would be laughable. The idea of boosting an immune system with maple syrup, juice and frizen fruit is so illogical that I am left here shaking my head,” David wrote in his family’s Prayers for Ezekiel Facebook page.)
Ezekiel was braindead by the time EMS officials met with the parents, according to the medical examiner who testified in the trial.
Ezekiel had a runny nose, fever and was having trouble breathing. Collet gave him as much natural product to stave off sickness, the court heard from audio recordings from police interviews with the parents. In interviews with RCMP, she described him as too stiff to get into the car seat and had to lie on a mattress in the back of the vehicle.
During the trial, a nurse testified that she had warned the parents that he may have developed meningitis.
“I’m not saying they killed him, abused him or ignored him – they loved him,” Crown Prosecutor Clayton Giles said.
“They didn’t take him to a doctor until it was too late – far too late,” he said.
Bowman says the case is pointing to a hot-button issue in today’s society: a heated division between traditional medicine and naturopathy and home remedies.
“We’re got a huge societal problem in the amount of tension between alternative and mainstream medicine. Turning it into a battle isn’t a good idea, you can absolutely honour both,” he suggested.
He’s also worried about growing distrust in the medical system.
“This is a society where people’s comfort and trust with mainstream medicine are questioned. They’re willing to take great chances with moving outside of the mainstream approach,” he said.
But the experts say parents and frontline health care workers have a duty to look after a child’s health.
“What is very clear as a health care professional is if you feel there is a direct threat, you must report it. It’s clear to parents that you can’t do anything that’ll put your child’s life at risk. We have those laws but it’s how they’re interpreted,” Bowman explained.
Caplan said the trial is sending a warning to other parents.
“It sends a message that not bringing a child who’s been sick for days to the attention of a doctor in mainstream medicine is not going to be tolerated,” he told Global News.
“What they did is ethically wrong. You can’t keep trying alternative things while your child is suffering and clearly not getting better,” he said.
With files from Global’s Quinn Campbell