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Tragic Death of a Girl due to Alternative Medicine & Religious Beliefs

Makayla SaultYou've probably heard of this by now, but just in case you haven't, here's a quick summary. Makayla Sault, an 11-year-old First Nation girl from Ontario had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Doctors said that with chemotherapy, she had 75% odds of surviving the disease. After 11 weeks of chemo, Makayla had a dream where Jesus came to her and told her she'd been cured and that the chemo was killing her body. She decided she didn't want to do the chemo any longer, and her parents, both pastors, agreed. Along with supposedly traditional treatments*, they took her to an alternative medicine clinic in Florida, where "The girl's mother said her daughter received cold laser therapy, Vitamin C injections and a strict raw food diet, among other therapies at Hippocrates." Tragically, but unsurprisingly, Makayla died.

A good summary is available from CBC News, Makayla Sault, girl who refused chemo for leukemia, dies. This is the article I quoted above. Another summary, though not quite as good, is available from The Globe and Mail, Ontario First Nations girl taken off chemotherapy has died.

This whole affair is so tragic, yet it was most likely avoidable. Treatments for ALL have been getting better and better. Whereas a diagnosis of ALL was a near death sentence back in the '60s, patients receiving treatment now have survival rates of around 90% (more info - Pharyngula: Support cancer research now!). Had Makayla continued with the chemotherapy, she would most likely still be alive today.

Some people see this case as controversial, having to respect the rights of the parents and their traditional beliefs (even if the clinic they went to was practicing modern quack therapies). I couldn't disagree more. There should be no controversy here at all - this was clearly a case of either abuse or neglect.

On Jerry Coyne's website, he wrote an article discussing this issue, Canadian government kills First Nations girl out of misguided respect for faith. I got a bit involved in the comments, and left a reply to one of the people that sees this as a controversial case, which I've decided to copy here since it summarizes my thoughts on this well.

Children are not property of their parents. They are their own individual people, but without fully developed brains and the rational thinking and maturity that goes along with that. That is why parents have a duty to properly raise children until the children reach a sufficient level of maturity to face the world on their own. Parents should have latitude only in so much as they are acting in the best interests of the children. Once a parent's actions jeopardize or cause harm to the child, they've gone well beyond any plausible latitude.

Governments have the responsibility of protecting citizens, whether the citizen is being threatened by a stranger in a dark alley or by their own parents abusing them. Cases like this of withholding appropriate medical care are among the worst cases of abuse, since they result in the death of the child.

Children do not have sufficient maturity, experience, or knowledge to make well thought out decisions on life and death issues. Their wishes should be considered, and given increasing weight as the child matures and approaches adulthood, but those wishes should not trump the judgment of mature, well informed adults (usually the parents, but the state if the parents are incompetent).

Of course, there will always be grey areas. When does spanking become physical abuse? When does lecturing become verbal abuse? When does opting out of pills become criminal neglect? That's why we have judges and the court system. If interpreting the law were easy, we'd just have clerks administering penalties rather than having judges.

I do feel sympathy for the parents, not only for the loss of their daughter, but for the circumstances that led them to become so deluded that they thought a snake oil salesman in Florida offered more hope for Makayla than evidence based medicine. But that sympathy won't bring Makayla back. And there are other children in similar circumstances. This is tragic, and those children's lives are worth more than the parents' feelings.

I am extremely angry at people like Judge Gethin Edward, who had the chance to save these children, yet caved to cultural sensitivities. Was respect for traditional medicine worth this girl's life? How do you sleep at night knowing you sentenced her to death?**

Sadly, at least one more child, known publicly only as J.J., is almost surely going to die due to nearly identical circumstances. How many children must die before this situation will be changed?

Makayla Sault
Makayla Sault, 2004-2015

Image Source: CBC (with video)


*Although most of the articles I've seen mention 'traditional medicine', I haven't seen any discussion of actual traditional treatments. It seems that the main treatments were from the alternative medicine clinic in Florida.

**Judge Edward ruled in the case of J.J., not Makayla, but it was that decision that set the precedent for Makayla's case. Additionally, unless there is some last minute miracle, J.J. will almost surely die, as well.

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