Give science more credit and put away natural remedies


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n April 26, Albertan couple David and Collet Stephan were found guilty of neglecting their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel Stephan, who died of meningitis in 2012. The defence argued that the parents, who attempted to heal Ezekiel through natural remedies rather than by seeking professional medical help, believed he simply had the flu.

Prosecutor Lisa Weich noted the Stephans had been warned by a registered nurse that Ezekiel likely had meningitis, and additionally that they should have been able to interpret their son’s symptoms as something more serious.

Having been born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, a city known for its Birkenstock-wearing, organic garden-planting, and vegan-eating residents, I’m familiar with the type of people who swear by their home remedies. My own family exists in this circle. For Christmas, my sister once gave me an awful serum that supposedly reduces anxiety, and my mother keeps a bottle of echinacea to treat colds and the flu — the same medicinal mixture that the Stephan parents used — stocked in the medicine cabinet at all times.

I’ve never complained about my family’s alternative health practices because, if need be, we seek professional advice. We have healthy diets, exercise, and yes, take echinacea. When that isn’t enough, we pay the doctor a visit. This is what the Stephan family should have done.

Ultimately doctors are here to treat us, to cure us, and to save us. Why would they want to do anything else?

I have plenty of qualms with the population that favours alternative medicine. Scientists have developed amazing medicines, remedies, and cures, so why do some of us refuse to use them? I understand the distrust in big pharmaceutical companies, and I understand the anger toward powerful higher-ups who care more about their bank accounts than patients (looking at you, Martin Shkreli). Ultimately though, doctors are here to treat us, to cure us, and to save us. Why would they want to do anything else?

It’s foolish to believe otherwise. Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says turning to unproven alternative medicine is not the answer to our cynicism about conventional medicine.

Alternative medicines are considered inherently less harmful because they are perceived to be more natural. However, alternative medicine lacks testing. According to doctors Phil Fontanarosa and George Lundberg, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “there is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.”

At worst, these medicines can hurt us. At best, they heal us. Often, they simply do nothing. Such was the case with Ezekiel Stephan.

The world of ‘unproven’ medicine extends beyond one tragic case with a sick child. This is about a generation of children raised without vaccines that have worked for decades because ignorant parents are worried they may cause autism.

This is about children dying of suffocation because parents no longer trust the chemicals in inhalers long-known to treat asthma. We now live in a world where germs, viruses, and bacteria have become increasingly dangerous, and now there’s an entire generation of children whose immune systems are perfect targets. 

There is no doubt that David and Collet Stephan loved Ezekiel, but as Weich put it, “sometimes love just isn’t enough.” Ultimately, had the Stephan family sought medical help for their son earlier, he would probably still be alive today.


  1. Oh bull. The Stephans would have probably been sent home from the hospital with a wrong diagnosis and the doctors wouldn’t be held accountable for their mistake like these parents were.

  2. “Ultimately, had the Stephan family sought medical help for their son earlier, he would probably still be alive today.”

    And, if I may add.. had he been vaccinated this tragedy might have also been avoided.

  3. First and foremost, I want to give my applause to the author of this article. This has been one of the most thought provoking pieces I have had the pleasure of reading… I think it serves the category of ‘opinion’ perfectly when a reader finds himself/herself thinking about the piece after putting the paper down… and that I did. Enough so that I felt the need to add my two-cents in about the whole thing in the comment section:

    I will start by saying that my background is in biology and so I am a strong supporter of advancements through evidence-based science. However, I also do a fair share of bioethics reading and I believe that the issue at hand here is more of an issue of bioethics rather than a battle between alternative medicine and scientific-advancements:

    To start, a potential issue is the idea that the parents were informed as opposed to being disclosed. Being informed means they were told that the son likely had meningitis and the assumption is that the parents should have had the ability to interpret the symptoms as more serious than a flu. Being disclosed, on the other hand, ensures that the parents know the consequences of not getting the medical treatment; under the assumptions that the nurse was abiding to the code of conduct of her oath, we can assume that the disclosure was made.

    In any case, I believe that the article seems to present implications on the need for strong medical paternalism. For anyone not familiar, paternalism refers to the responsibility to act beneficially towards those under your protection.

    Medically, doctors are viewed as having more training, insight, and authority… however, this does not constitute strong paternalism because of the element of patient autonomy. It should be noted that autonomy, the personal rule of self upon receiving adequate decisions and without interference and influence of others, typically triumphs the decisions recommended by a physician.

    To me, the argument that “Doctors are here to treat us, cure us, and to save us” blindly ignores the very important concept of autonomy. And ignoring the importance of autonomy has implications towards mistreatment of whole groups of people, such as those of a particular religious, cultural backgrounds, or other moral commitments.

    It is morally prohibited to disrespect parents refusal of treatment for the child… as is the case often with religious exemptions. However, a key notion is that a situation where the parental autonomy of a child is over-reaching, resulting in the refusal of lifesaving treatment, is a crime. That is a refusal that constitutes child abuse, child neglect, and a violation of the rights of a child. In court decisions, this is often referred to as the justified limitation of parental autonomy. The Stephans were in direct violation of this…

    I found, however, that this article wrongfully ties the situation as a battle between alternative medicine and research proven science; arguments that could be paralleled in a discussion about religious effects and research proven science. Which have implications beyond individual case, as it enters the realm of a battle of intrinsic values of persons. I propose, however, that this case is not an issue of alternative medicine, rather, that the death of Ezekiel is an issue of ethics that ultimately results in the crime that is child neglect/abuse by the parents.

    Once again, bravo to the author!

    – Iman Baharmand 🙂