Protection vs. Endangerment
By Scott Lazarowitz
Well, the CPS vultures are out there, once again. This time in Seminole County, Florida. In June the county’s Child Protection Services bureaucrats took a 12-day-old baby away from his vegan Seventh Day Adventist mother who insisted on breastfeeding the baby, and, when the baby was losing weight the mother refused to take him to the hospital and instead she provided the baby with a supplemental vegan formula. That diet and method of healing was consistent with her religious beliefs, but her “doctor” believed otherwise, reported her to the “authorities” who arrested her, and had CPS seize her child.
The mother was actually charged with neglect. But this week a judge has decided to give custody back to the mother, Sarah Markham, as the judge agreed that Ms. Markham was not an “unfit mother.” Her attorney has stated that they hope police will drop the criminal charges against her as well.
Actually, in my view it is her doctor who reported her to CPS who is the real criminal here. By causing the baby to be taken out of his home and placed with strangers that doctor is the one who has compromised the baby’s health and security, and siccing government police on the mother is what I would consider a real case of endangerment of Sarah Markham as well.
Now, some people including some libertarians may have the view that society must nevertheless intervene to “save the child” from starvation because the child was losing weight as his mother’s breastfeeding wasn’t providing enough nutrition. But who is ultimately to decide what is best for the baby, the mother? The doctor or hospital? The government? Her neighbors?
This story reminds me of a more serious but somewhat similar situation from the 1980s, the Twitchell case. Remember that one? That was the case of the Christian Scientist couple, David and Ginger Twitchell, whose 2-year-old boy had an obstruction of the colon. The Twitchells chose to use prayer to heal their son as they rejected medical treatments, and when he died the couple were charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the conviction, however.
I originally had the attitude of, “Well, those religious radicals allowed their baby to die in the name of their own religious beliefs, of course they’re guilty!” However, I changed my views on that the more I thought about it. And it was the late Gene Burns (1940-2013), former LP presidential candidate, whose discussion on his radio show convinced me to take the side of the parents, which is the side that Gene took. It really was a freedom issue.
Regarding the current case of Sarah Markham rejecting the doctors’ nutritional advice despite the baby’s losing weight, who is to say at that time that the doctors’ nutritional advice will actually be better for the baby? Who can tell the future as far as what will work? Should we base a forced treatment (and taking the baby away from his mother!) on the probability that the hospital’s nutritional treatments will be better for the baby? Modern medicine and doctors advice may be the better alternative most of the time, but not always. The problem here is that lack of a 100% guarantee that “doctor knows better,” as many of us know from our own experiences that there is plenty room for doubt there.
And in the case of the Twitchells, suppose these parents did take their child to the hospital which then had doctors surgically clear the child’s colon obstruction, but he nevertheless died? Yes, it does happen, and often, by the way.
This terrific Freeman article by A.M. Rogers explains several of these kinds of cases, with quite a few good examples which show that it is not always a good idea to rely on modern medicine, and which show that ultimately and morally, whatever the situation is medically, the parents really do have the ultimate moral authority to decide what’s best for their children.
However, as soon as the child is older and if the child himself is able to decide that he wants to try another alternative, then that is his right as well, even going against the parents wishes, such as if there are neighbors who have offered the child better food or if he wants to go to a doctor. I believe that Murray Rothbard promoted that same kind of right of self-direction in his Ethics of Liberty.
To conclude, if society is insistent on arresting and jailing parents for unconventional or alternative treatments of their children, then as the earlier Freeman article suggested, it would be equally and morally just to criminally charge doctors and hospitals whose modern medicine interventions also fail.
And in the case of Seventh Day Adventist and vegan Sarah Markham, it would also be just for her to insist on the arrest and prosecution of her “doctor” with charges of endangerment. He had her baby taken away by the vultures of CPS, and he also caused great risk to Sarah’s own life by having her arrested by government police who are notorious in their general lack of respect for the rights of innocent people.