National Post Barbara Kay: Makayla needs to be saved from cultural correctness

National Post - Thursday May 22nd, 2014

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Makayla Sault has asked her parents to take her off chemotherapy and pursue traditional medicines instead.

Religion, medical science and the best interests of children can make a hot-potato stew. What do you do, for example, when scientifically ignorant parents believe prayers will be more efficacious than a proven medical intervention to save a critically ill child?

That was the question asked and answered in the 1995 case, B(R) v. Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto, when Jehovah’s Witness parents refused a blood transfusion for their severely anemic 1-year-old daughter who was at risk of congestive heart failure. The decision was to make the baby a ward of the court in order to administer the transfusions, because it was decided that they offered the child’s best hope for survival.

The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately ruled that this state intervention was a legitimate limitation on religious freedom. In their ruling the Court considered Canada’s Charter of Rights (section 2 (a) – right to freedom of conscience and religion) versus the Ontario province’s obligation to a “child in need of protection” under the Ontario Child Welfare Act.

Jehovah’s Witness is a religion, not a culture. Its practitioners are not a burden to Canada’s national conscience. The transfusions would not afflict the baby with undue suffering. And in any case a baby has no opinions of its own to consider. The ruling doubtless pleased the vast majority of Canadians.

Today we contemplate the case of 11-year old Makayla Sault, an aboriginal child from the New Credit First Nation, afflicted with a rare form of leukemia touching only three to five percent of children with the disease. Its prognosis used to be extremely grim even with aggressive and uncomfortable medical intervention.

But the survival rate has increased dramatically under new medical protocols, which would give Makayla 70% odds of survival if followed to completion.  As Christie Blatchford wrote in her May 22 column, “[Makayla’s] doctors at McMaster had good reason to believe she has a real shot at beating this thing – and that stopping the treatment after only one round, would put her at risk.”

Makayla seems to be a remarkably mature child with decided opinions of her own regarding her treatment. And she has made it crystal clear, with the encouragement of her parents Ken and Sonya, that she wants to stop the debilitating chemotherapy treatments she has been enduring in favour of a native treatment administered by a native healer from the nearby Six Nations reserve.

Makayla’s case was investigated by local Brant Family and Children’s Services. Two outcomes were possible. Either Brant could apprehend Makayla and forced continuation of medical treatment, or they could acquiescence to the family’s wishes. Brant chose the latter course on “humane” grounds.

If native treatments for cancer were truly efficacious, that would be a hard secret to keep.

And are we happy with this decision? I confess that I am not happy at all. I would consider it far more humane in the long run to provide Makayla with optimal odds for survival than to grant a tranquillizing respite based on an illusory hope of a cure arising from “medication” for which no research or scientific literature t exists.

I cannot imagine a more pressing “best interest” than life itself. And I have no confidence at all in the efficacy of homemade brews. I daresay most Canadians would agree that the chances of a cure from whatever natural ingredient is involved here are vanishingly slim; if native treatments for cancer were truly efficacious, that would be a hard secret to keep.

The problem is that Makayla has been told by people she trusts that she has just as good a shot at survival with natural treatments than with chemo. So she is not basing her decision on informed consent. What naïve child wouldn’t choose a painless procedure over a painful one, if her own parents and other trusted adults had given her such assurances?

I cannot help but think that this decision, unlike the Jehovah’s Witness case, has been influenced by political squeamishness rather than common sense. In its essentials, the 1995 case and this one are parallel, as both involve children who are incompetent to objectively assess their own long-term interests, and loving parents with the best of intentions, but guided by faith-based trust in remedies they erroneously consider the healing equivalent of medical science. Makayla’s parents have misinformed her. But Makayla does not know that. It is better that this little girl should be seen “as a child in need of protection” than run the elevated risk of her dying as a martyr to cultural correctness.