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By Jerry A. Coyne
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.
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