When natural medicine goes bad…

By and large, people have a right to choose what healthcare they and their family receive.  Some people opt for non-standard forms of medicine.  As early as the 1870s some westerners were prepared to go on record regarding the efficacity of Chinese cures (see Ex Parte Yee Quock Ping (1875) 1 VLR 112).  Where naturopathy is concerned, I can’t imagine my thoroughly practical friend – and Naturopath-in-Training – Madison ever recommending something  anything she thought would be useless or (worse) harmful.  Nevertheless, sometimes the process goes astray.

In early 2015 a baby in New South Wales was diagnosed with eczema.  His mother was advised by a medical practitioner that the condition could be managed but not cured.  She consulted a naturopath, who told her that it could in fact be cured.  The child was being breast fed and (so the reasoning ran) his eczema could be caused by the mothers diet and toxins in her body.  She recommended the mother take up a raw food diet.  Over the next month both mother and child lost significant weight.  Despite not seeing the child, the naturopath assured the mother that this was normal and that her baby was fat and needed to lose weight.  Astonishingly, in mid-May 2015 the naturopath advised the mother to fast and adopt a water-only diet.

A few weeks later the child’s mother took him to a General Practitioner.  He was referred to a hospital where he was found to be in a critical condition.  It was concluded that he would have died within days without medical care.  His weight had dropped from 8 kilograms to 6.4 kilograms (17.6lbs to 14.08lbs).  It was uncertain whether he would suffer permanent developmental delays due to the experience.

The child’s mother was charged with failing to care for a child.  The Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), §43A(2) provides that

A person:

(a) who has parental responsibility for a child, and

(b) who, without reasonable excuse, intentionally or recklessly fails to provide the child with the necessities of life,

is guilty of an offence if the failure causes a danger of death or of serious injury to the child.

Maximum penalty: Imprisonment for 5 years.

The naturopath was charged with aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the mother’s crime.  She pleaded guilty.  The District Court accepted that she was remorseful and she had meant well.  However, Berman DCJ pointed out that –

 

Well intentioned but seriously misguided advice is, as the facts of this case demonstrate, capable of causing great harm and even death to vulnerable children. Those giving such advice need to have it made clear to them that if they give such advice they need to make sure that it is not going to do harm and if they continue to give such advice they need to continue to ensure that no harm is being caused.

It is a serious matter, but not necessarily a crime, to tell a breast feeding mother to restrict her diet. It is even more serious when such advice continues after being told that both the mother and child have lost weight. And it is serious indeed and highly criminal for such advice to continue to the state where a child was at risk of death within a few days, in circumstances where the person giving the advice hadn’t even seen the state the child was in as a result of his or her advice being followed.

 

The naturopath was sentenced to be imprisoned for 14 months, to serve a minimum of 7 months.

R v Bodnar [2018] NSWDC 76