If there’s one thing that really animates me and angers me, it’s the unnecessary death of a child due to quackery I’ve long held the view that competent adults should be free to choose whatever treatment they want for serious diseases, although I do add the caveat that they have to understand when they are choosing quackery that there is no evidence that it works and often there is evidence that it doesn’t work. Another caveat is that the freedom of adults to choose ineffective treatments (or no treatment at all) does not mean that quacks should have free rein to make any claims they want regarding their snake oil. After all, selling something that doesn’t work by claiming that it does is fraud, and consumers deserve some measure of protection against fraud. When it comes to children, however, someone has to look out for their best interests, and when parents fail to do that when their child has a life-threatening disease, someone must step in and look after the interests of the child. Usually that “someone” is the state. Finally, when the parents’ choice of quackery over effective medicine leads to the death of a trial, there must be some penalty for the medical neglect, and any other children in the family must be protected. This brings me to the tragic death of Ezekiel Stephan due to the choice by his parents David and Collet Stephan to treat his meningitis with quackery instead of medicine.
Ezekiel Stephan was a 19-month-old toddler from Alberta, Canada who developed bacterial meningitis and died six years ago. The boy died because his parents were into “natural medicine.” Instead of taking him to a real doctor, they treated him with garlic, onion, horseradish, and supplements made by his father’s company (more on that later) and took him to a naturopath instead of a real doctor—at least until it was too late. Ezekiel died of his meningitis and an empyema, which is a collection of pus in the pleural cavity surrounding the lungs. Every report, as well as the court documents that I read, indicated that Ezekiel’s death was neither easy nor painless.
As a result, the parents were tried and convicted in 2016 under Section 215 of the Criminal Code which deals with “failing to provide the necessaries of life.” At the time, I was actually somewhat surprised, as courts in the US and Canada appear to give parents wide—too wide—latitude for making decisions about what is best for their children, and great deference is generally granted to parental authority and parental “rights.” It is this deference that can become a problem in protecting children from their parents’ belief in quackery when they become seriously ill. I half expected that to happen in this case, the more so because David Stephan is a prominent member of his community, belonging to a family that runs a nutritional supplements company, Truehope Nutritional Support. Basically, Stephan’s entire business and worldview are inextricably linked to what happened to his son’s death, with his belief in “natural healing” having lead to Ezekiel’s unnecessary death. Indeed, reports from the trial indicated that Stephan tried to use Truehope supplements to treat his son. As far as David Stephan’s business goes, Health Canada launched an unsuccessful court case in 2004 to stop the distribution of the company’s product Empowerplus, a product that the company claimed to be able to manage mental illnesses. The case ended in 2006 when the company was found not guilty of distributing the supplement without a drug identification number.
Oh, and the Stephans are antivaccine, too.
David Stephan was sentenced to four months in jail, and his wife was ordered to spend three months under house arrest. Meanwhile his appeals wended their way through the courts. Last November, the Alberta Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, but because the decision was not unanimous, the case could automatically be heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s decision was…disappointing and puzzling:
The Supreme Court of Canada has ordered a new trial for a couple who used homemade remedies instead of seeking medical attention for their son who died of bacterial meningitis.
David Stephan and his wife, Collet, were found guilty in 2016 of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel in 2012.
Their trial in Lethbridge, Alta., heard that they treated the boy with garlic, onion and horseradish rather than take him to a doctor. The Stephans eventually called 911, but the toddler died in hospital.
The Supreme Court heard arguments from the couple’s lawyer and the Crown on Tuesday morning before making the unusual move of ruling immediately from the bench.
Karen Molle, lawyer for the Stephans, told the high court the original trial judge didn’t instruct the jury properly to determine whether the Stephans acted differently than other reasonable parents.
“This jury charge gave this jury little choice but to convict,” Molle said.
Julie Morgan, representing the Crown, said the trial judge’s language was generalized, but it was enough for the jury to understand the case.
“The jury would have understood what their job was,” she told the court. “They found that the appellants did not meet the community standard, when they failed to take their child to a doctor when he had meningitis, and that endangered his life.”
Justice Michael Moldaver, speaking for the high court, stated that the trial judge did not properly instruct jurors “in a way that the jury could understand.”
I don’t know Canadian law and am not a lawyer anyway. So there’s no point in my commenting on the legal reasoning behind the high court’s decision. I just know that, legally, the Stephans have gotten off—for now. There will be a new trial. The bad news is that the Stephans are no longer convicted and that a new trial could well acquit them. The good news is that a new trial could also convict them or even result in a more severe penalty than their previous trial. What worries me, though, is this. If it really is true that the instructions to the jury left it little choice but to convict, would properly administered instructions meant that the Stephans would be less likely to be convicted after a new trial? Again, I’m not a lawyer, much less a Canadian lawyer, and I just don’t know.
Unfortunately, whatever the result of the new trial, you can bet that the quacks will proclaim this decision a “victory” for “natural medicine” against the forces of big pharma, the AMA (even though this case is in Canada), the medical-industrial complex, and whatever other deep state conspiracy you want to invoke. Never mind that David Stephan himself is part of a family that owns a large business selling supplements.
Indeed, David Stephan’s already begun the propaganda. For instance, on his Facebook page:
Last week, before the trial, he was posting similar messages:
Yes, he went all Godwin:
With our Supreme Court hearing coming up this Tuesday – which will not only effect the future of our family, but the future of all Canadians as this landmark, precedent setting case is being used to deprive parental rights and health freedoms in Canada – can we expect to have the corporate driven, lying mainstream media continue their play straight out of Hitlers handbook, wherein they tell such an unbelievably big lie so frequently that it actually becomes accepted as the truth?
Yes, invoke Hitler and, of course, “freedom.” Unfortunately, that “freedom” was the freedom to let a 19-month-old child die a horrible death because the Stephans thought that herbs, supplements, and a naturopath were a better idea. It’s the same dog whistle that antivaccine activists like “Dr. Bob” Sears likes to invoke.
Towards the end, he invokes “real criminals involved in our case” whom, he hopes, “will be brought to light and held accountable for not only attempting to destroy our family, but for their attempt to erode the God given rights and freedoms of all Canadians.” It’s a theme he revisits briefly in a post-trial interview:
Hilariously, when the reporter references Stephan’s Facebook post predicting that the “real criminals” will be exposed and asks him who these “real criminals” might be, the only response he can come up with. is, “Well, we’ll hae to wait and find out, now, won’t we?” Yes, he knows he’s full of crap, but he also knows that all the “natural medicine” mavens supporting him against The Man will lap this nonsense up.
Meanwhile, through it all, quackery supporters have been weaving conspiracy theories about how the state is “out to get” the Stephans, presumably at the behest of big pharma. For instance, Laurette Anderson from The Relevant School wrote a howler of an article, loaded with conspiracy mongering. Get a load of this:
The tragic story of the death of Ezekiel Stephan and the resulting traumatic assault on his parents, which is ongoing even today, is a cautionary tale for all Canadian parents. This new status quo, a result of the outcome of our justice system, sets the scene of every parent’s nightmare. Ezekiel’s parents are being held to a much higher standard than any average parent. In fact, they are being held to a higher standard than medical professionals. There are several standing court decisions holding medical doctors blameless in situations where the symptoms were more obvious than in Ezekiel’s case; and these cases were actually bacterial meningitis – whereas Ezekiel’s illness was clearly, not, bacterial meningitis. And although he did not die of bacterial meningitis, as recently as this past February, the media still peddles that false narrative.
The heart of the appeal was that the original trial judge didn’t properly instruct the jury to determine whether the Stephans acted differently than other “reasonable parents.” Let’s review what happened, shall we? Here’s an account from their first trial in 2016:
Collet Stephan, 35, told police that a friend told the couple their son had meningitis — inflammation caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
She said they tried to boost the boy’s immune system by feeding him with olive leaf extract, whey protein, water with maple syrup and juice with frozen berries.
They finally fed the boy, who was becoming stiff and lethargic after two weeks of illness, a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horseradish root, hot peppers, onion, garlic and ginger root.
The child was airlifted to a hospital after he stopped breathing, and doctors removed him from life support after five days.
Does this sound reasonable?
Witnesses at the trial said the toddler’s body was so stiff he couldn’t sit in his car seat, so he had to lie on a mattress when his mother drove him from their rural Alberta home to a naturopathic clinic in Lethbridge, where she bought an echinacea mixture.
Does this sound reasonable? I don’t think so, either. None of this stops Anderson from trying to tell us that Ezekiel didn’t die of bacterial meningitis. On what basis does she do this? None. Remember, the coroner ruled that Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis and empyema. Does Anderson have any hard evidence to cast doubt on this finding? If she does, she sure as hell doesn’t provide it. Instead, she cries conspiracy:
This leads this reporter to believe, and possibly conclude, that since every news agency in Canada has made the same claims against these parents, that they conspired against the Stephan family. It appears that the media are either recklessly reporting unsubstantiated and libellous drivel, or that they are being used to perpetuate a false narrative to distract the public from the serious lack of justice toward the family in this case’s outcome. Conspiracy, according to Oxford, is “a secret plan to commit a crime or do harm, often for political ends”. All news agencies spreading the same lie is proof in itself of conspiring, isn’t it? Political ends? How about creating propaganda and crisis in order to manipulate and slant public opinion in a predetermined direction. Yet, no outcry is to be heard at this dangerous precedent in the court.
If the Stephans are innocent, then what happened? The court says guilty, the media says guilty, and so we all believe they are guilty. Case dismissed. Remember, this couple is being held to a higher standard than any medical professional in a similar predicament with a patient. Even without an iota of training in diagnosing meningitis or any other deadly disease, they are being held responsible for not being able to read the subtle symptoms of what has been assumed, was a deathly illness.
Or maybe the reason that every news outlet is reporting the same account is not because of a conspiracy, but rather because the narrative is pretty straightforward. I do love how she cites the dictionary definition of “conspiracy,” though. Citing dictionary definitions is usually a hack move, and this isn’t an exception to that rule of thumb. Moreover, the Stephans are not being “held to a higher standard than any medical professional.” She’s disingenuously comparing apples and oranges. Here’s the difference. The “subtle cases” that she invokes as having been missed by doctors were just that, subtle and early cases. By the time the Stephans called a real doctor, Ezekiel was so incredibly sick that he was too stiff to sit down, and had been that way for days. He had stopped breathing. These are not subtle signs. These are signs that any reasonable adult should recognize as indicating serious illness.
Through it all, since they were put on trial and convicted two years ago, the Stephans have shown, in public at least, shockingly little that could be described as remorse over the death of their son and essentially zero recognition of their role in it. In their narrative, they did no wrong and bear no responsibility for Ezekiel’s death, and their prosecution and criticism in the press are a result of a conspiracy between the government, doctors, and, of course, big pharma. At one point around the , they even claimed in an interview with Elizabeth Erin of Healthnut News that their prosecution was a strategy on the part of the government to “compel parents who have chosen not to vaccinate to seek traditional medical attention when their child gets sick sooner than parents who vaccinate” and to “allow for criminal liability for parents if their non-vaccinated child suffers harm for any illness for which there is a vaccine.” Just three months ago, when Health and Wellness Expos of Canada dropped him as a speaker at its expos this year, David Stephan took to Facebook to blame it on an “astroturf” movement and “pharma trolls” using a concerted campaign of disinformation on behalf of journalists supported by the Canadian pharmaceutical industry, calling his ouster evidence of an impending corporate takeover of the natural health industry. That latter part is hilarious, of course, given that the “natural health industry” is almost as “corporate” as big pharma and how big pharma actually owns quite a few supplement companies.
Quacks have been portraying the Stephans as martyrs ever since they were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for their child, and David Stephan has deep connections with the “natural health” community,” so much so that he was able to land a speaking gig at the Health and Wellness Expos of Canada this year, which were scheduled to take place all over Canada. He was disinvited only when critics raised a stink about featuring a man who at the time had been convicted of what most would consider medical neglect. Naturally, he portrayed that as a big conspiracy against him then as well. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to order a new trial for the Stephans is the gift that will keep giving to quacks and enemies of science-based medicine.
Countdown to Mike Adams rant about the “persecution” of the Stephans having “failed” in 3…2…1… It’s coming. You know it is.