Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who is Actually to Blame for the Death of a Baby?

The blogosphere is abuzz over the death of an infant who was allegedly fed soy milk and apple juice by Vegan parents. This tragedy has led to a "perfect storm" of a news story, like the Terry Schiavo case. But it is interesting to note that most of the analysis I've seen has been absolutely facile. What really happened and who is to blame?

There are some interesting parts of the story that are not widely reported. The first is that the mother apparently gave birth at home. This is not crazy, but I can't advocate even an experienced mother doing something like this without a credentialed midwife in attendance. There is no indication that a midwife or otherwise qualified person was there. In fact, we're told in the articles that the first time the baby saw a doctor, he was dead. With the low weight of the baby, it seems very likely that the baby was premature, or at least underweight. As in "needs immediate medical care" underweight.

This leads me to believe that the parents were, or at least felt themselves to be, isolated from the support structure that should have been there for them. We read that they had a profound distrust of pharmaceuticals and the health industry. That isn't surprising. But did they have any health insurance? Any money that would have allowed them access to care at the hospital that was apparently across the street?

The second is that the baby reportedly had bedsores, which can be very hazardous in a newborn. This is not just diaper rash; it is a sign of genuine neglect over and above the low weight. Was the father around to assist the mother? What about any other family members? We don't know anything about how well the mother recuperated from the birth, and whether she had the physical readiness to be a fully competent caregiver, but then failed at it for some reason.

In the trial much was made about the parents and their vegan diet. However, I suspect that this is a bit of a red herring, introduced by the defense to try and diffuse the blame and confuse the issues at hand. Here is why:

Mainstream vegans (if there are such a thing) advocate breastfeeding (although I read that some vegans apparently advise against it, for reasons that are unfathomable to me). It didn't seem like the baby was breastfed, or not breastfed very much. This may not have been just a matter of the mother failing to breastfeed; the baby may have been underweight at birth, even premature (we aren't told), and weak. Such babies can have difficulty latching on, and might do better drinking pumped breast milk from a bottle.

Mainstream vegans can use commercial infant soy-based infant formula. It is vegan. Millions of babies are raised successfully on formula, even premature or underweight babies.

It is possible to successfully raise vegan children, although I believe getting all the proper fatty acids and B12 can be a bit dicey. I wouldn't try it without careful supplementation with at least some non-vegan nutrition such as fish oils.

Soy milk is not anything like soy formula. Soy milk is a reasonably nutritious milk supplement for adults or older children. We drink a lot of soy milk in my household. Our two-year-old gets some, but she also gets solid food and breast milk and a vitamin supplement. Soy milk is marked "not to be used as infant formula" right on the box or carton. Infant formula is much more dense in nutrients, especially fats, with a lot of sugars and proteins and special substances needed for infant development such as arachidonic acid. (See Wikipedia's article on essential fatty acids).

It seems likely to me that if the baby had been fed soy formula, he might be alive today. Why a parent would try to feed an infant soy milk, despite the clear labeling, instead of soy formula is beyond me. Was soy milk all that the parents could afford? Is it actually cheaper? Were there no resources that could provide formula for free or at reduced cost?

The issue is further confused because some sources seem to indicate the infant got at least some soy formula.

Apple juice is nearly worthless nutritionally and if not cut with water can cause dehydration, as the concentrated sugars tend to cause water to migrate into the gut. I can't imagine anyone with any medical or nutritional credentials whatsoever advocating feeding straight apple juice to a newborn.

It sounds to me like the baby died of neglect, under-nourishment, and dehydration. At least one source reported that the cupboards in the household were empty of food. The baby did not die because the parents didn't feed the baby animal-based foods. How many newborns eat meat or animal products anyway?

So this tragedy is not actually all about a vegan diet.

So what is it about?

Interestingly, it was only today that I saw pictures of the parents and realized that they are black. I had assumed that they were white, because I associate white, not black, people with vegetarian and vegan diets and with weird theories about diet.

In other words, in a kind of reverse racism, I associate white people with the liberty to be stupid enough to do something like this. I tend to believe that it is whites who can fixate on dumb ideas and attempt to apply them to real life without any practical consequences... until something like this happens.

Now that I've seen the photos, I have a whole other set of associations in my head, most of them the result of the racist world view I was raised with. The biggest two of these are "poverty" and "drugs." But it is important to note that the news accounts have not contained any hints as to whether either of these two things may have actually been factors.

Were the parents neglectful?

Were they ignorant?

Were they poor?

Were they high?

Were they unsupported by the community and their society?

This is a systems failure. White or black, rich or poor, if it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly also takes a village to kill one, or, more importantly to fail to protect one.

Or, to put it another way, if we don't have any responsibility for helping that child to grow up -- if we don't hold that task important -- why do we take it upon ourselves to punish the parents for failing so badly at the job?

Of one thing I am quite certain: while a life prison sentence (apparently mandatory under sentencing guidelines) might seem like justice, it isn't actually going to do anything -- either for the parents or for us -- that is truly worth doing. Except that the parents will get to complain that they can't get a decent vegan meal in prison.

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