On Monday, Makayla Sault, an 11-year-old from Ontario and member of the Mississauga tribe of the New Credit First Nation, died from acute lymphoblastic leukemia after suffering a stroke the previous day. This would normally not be big news in Canada or the U.S.—except for the fact that Makayla's death was probably preventable and thus unnecessary.
Makayla died not only from leukemia, but from faith—the faith of her parents, who are pastors. They not only inculcated her with Christianity, but, on religious grounds, removed her from chemotherapy to put her in a dubious institute of “alternative medicine” in Florida. At the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Makayla was treated with a combination of raw food, vitamin C injections, and “cold laser therapy,” none of which have been shown to have the slightest effect on leukemia. (The Institute is being sued by former staff for operating a “scam.”) Her doctors say that if she had stayed on chemotherapy and standard treatment, she would have had a 75 percent chance of survival.
Makayla went off chemotherapy because the Canadian government and its child protective services refused to override the parents’ and child’s wishes to discontinue treatment; after supposedly having a vision of Jesus while in the hospital, Makayla had become convinced that chemotherapy was killing her. Indeed, after she died the family blamed the chemotherapy, claiming in a statement that “Makayla was on her way to wellness, bravely fighting toward holistic well-being after the harsh side-effects that 12 weeks of chemotherapy inflicted on her body. Chemotherapy did irreversible damage to her heart and major organs. This was the cause of the stroke.” This is a self-serving falsehood. Makayla’s oncologist says that she had a relapse of the leukemia, and that’s what killed her. Strokes are not uncommon in lymphoblastic leukemia because the disease increases the viscosity of the blood. That, not chemotherapy, is what caused her death.
In an eerily similar case, J. J., another 11-year old First Nations child with leukemia, and also from Ontario, refused chemotherapy in favor of alterative treatment. (She too was treated at the Hippocrates Health Institute.) In all likelihood J. J. will also die, since untreated lymphoblastic leukemia is fatal. In her case, the courts got involved, but a judge rejected the application of her hospital in Hamilton to have the Children’s Aid Society intervene and continue her chemotherapy. Judge Gethen Edward, in imposing what was in effect a death sentence, ruled, "I cannot find that J.J. is a child in need of protection when her substitute decision-maker has chosen to exercise her constitutionally protected right to pursue their traditional medicine over the Applicant's stated course of treatment of chemotherapy."
And that is the problem—a problem that makes the law and the Canadian government complicit in Makayla’s death. The so-called “right to pursue traditional medicine” is simply an unwarranted respect for faith, a “right” to impose the religious or superstitious beliefs of parents on their young, indoctrinated, or unreflective children. It is the “right” to harm children in the name of faith. And that “right” doesn’t exist for parents who simply impose quack cures on their children, for those parents can be jailed for child abuse, negligence, or even manslaughter.
The problem exists in the U.S. as well. According to the National District Attorney Association, 38 of our 50 states have religious exemptions for child abuse written into their codes of civil law, another 15 provide such exemptions for criminal misdemeanors, 17 have exemptions for felony crimes, and five (Idaho, Ohio, Iowa, West Virginia, and Arkansas) have exemptions for manslaughter or murder. In other words, if you kill or injure your child by withholding medical care on religious grounds, it’s difficult to prosecute you—much more difficult than if you did the same thing without religious reasons. And even when prosecutions of religious parents occur, judges and juries are reluctant to convict, or they impose only light sentences—sometimes probation without supervision. This is part of the unconscionable and unwarranted respect for faith that permeates our nation, and it’s caused the death of thousands of children.
In Canada’s case, the government’s easygoing approach to religiously-motivated child neglect is an ill-advised attempt to make up for past misdeeds. The Canadian government has often treated its indigenous people horribly, including taking children from their family and sticking them in special residential “Indian schools” where they were forbidden to use their language or learn about their culture, and where they were often horribly abused.
Since then, Canada has made a number of accommodations to the people of the First Nations. But in the cases of Makayla Sault and J. J., they’ve gone too far, for they’ve failed to remove children from their homes when they should have. In refusing to insist on modern medical treatment for these First Nations children, the government is complicit in the death of one girl and likely another.
Perhaps the most odious part of this whole tragedy is that the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has endorsed Makayla’s alternative treatment, making themselves complicit in any future deaths of this kind. On the same day Makayla died, an editorial appeared in that journal arguing that doctors must respect the desire of parents to substitute “native” medicine for scientific medicine. (Never mind that cold-laser treatment and vitamin therapy are hardly traditional medicines of Canada’s First Nations.) In “Caring for Aboriginal patients requires trust and respect, not courtrooms,” authors Dr. Lisa Richardson, a specialist in internal medicine and co-leader of Toronto’s Office of Indigenous Medical Education, and Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, deputy editor of CMAJ, succumb to the worst impulses of multiculturalism, writing, "To make medical treatment acceptable to our Aboriginal patients, the health care system must earn their trust by delivering respect. We must ensure that our Aboriginal patients, their families and communities feel welcome, are comfortable self identifying as Aboriginal and do not fear judgment based on stereotypes."
I'm all for respecting patients, but the article goes on to claim:
Medical science is not specific to a single culture, but is shared by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. Most Aboriginal people seek care from health professionals — but nearly half also use traditional medicines. Aboriginal healing traditions are deeply valued ancestral practices that emphasize plant-based medicines, culture and ceremony, multiple dimensions of health (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual), and relationships between healer, patient, community and environment. These beliefs create expectations that Aboriginal patients bring to their health care encounters; these must be respected. Doing so is not political correctness — it is patient-centred care.
No, it’s not patient-centered care; it’s culture-centered care, meant to treat a culture rather than the sick. And it’s political correctness of the worst stripe: a form that can be fatal. It is kowtowing to false beliefs for fear of offending an ethnic minority.
It sickens me that two prominent Canadian physicians endorse “alternative medicine” because modern medicine causes distrust in some native peoples. Makayla would be alive today, and J. J. might survive, if only Canadian physicians, jurists, and bureaucrats could overcome their fear of looking like bigots.
To any reasonable person, the lives of children trump faith, religious or otherwise. It’s time to eliminate these exemptions to medical care, and to place the blame for these children’s deaths where it belongs: not just on the disease, but on the faith that seduces parents into abjuring scientific medicine and that also cows governments and doctors from insisting on proper medical treatment, for fear of giving offense.
A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.