David And Collet Stephan Trial: Professor Worries Anti-Vaccine Parents Could Be Viewed As 'Martyrs'

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David and Collet Stephan arrive at the courthouse in Lethbridge, Alta. | Jeff McIntosh/CP

CALGARY — Some experts worry the continuing legal saga of a southern Alberta couple convicted of failing to get proper medical treatment for their son who died of bacterial meningitis could turn them into martyrs for the alternative medicine and anti-vaccination movement.

Tim Caulfield, the research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law and Science Policy Group, said he worries about David Stephan's continued public statements he and his wife were targeted because they didn't vaccinate their children.

"I hope we don't have that incredible polarization but that could be one of the downsides of this whole event — this couple being viewed almost as a martyr for the alternative practitioner side of the story,'' said Caulfield.

"We shouldn't test our ideologies on our children and that seems to be what kind of played out here."

"It almost doesn't matter if we think David is a credible source of information. It almost doesn't matter if he has something insightful to say. The problem is he keeps the narrative alive. He helps to keep the myth alive.''

David and Collet Stephan were found guilty by a jury in April of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel. Their trial was told they treated the boy with hot pepper, garlic, onions and horseradish instead of taking him to a doctor, and only called an ambulance after he stopped breathing in 2012.

David Stephan received a four-month jail term and Collet Stephan was handed three months of around-the-clock house arrest.

Both the Crown and defence recently filed appeals and the couple was released on bail Thursday.

"If you're part of the anti-vaccination community you've bought into all of the conspiracy theories."

Before sentencing, David Stephan was interviewed by the producers behind "Vaxxed,'' a controversial documentary alleging a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

He claimed it was a parental rights issue and said it comes down to whether "we have the right to vaccinate or not vaccinate without being held liable.'' In delivering the sentence, Justice Rodney Jerke criticized the father for his "lack of remorse'' and said he seemed more concerned about being punished than about his inaction when his son was sick.

The Stephans also had a significant number of backers turn up for their court appearances, and a website offering them support had many followers.

"If you're part of the anti-vaccination community you've bought into all of the conspiracy theories— that there's someone pulling the strings and withholding the actual data,'' said Caulfield, author of the books "The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness'' and "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?''

david stephan collet stephan
David and Collet Stephan leave the Lethbridge, Alta. courthouse where they were sentenced in the death of their son. (Photo: CP)

"We shouldn't test our ideologies on our children and that seems to be what kind of played out here. They were going to take their ideology right to the wall and unfortunately it resulted in a horrible conclusion.''

University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon is still hopeful that some in the anti-vaccination movement can be persuaded to change their views.

"There's a small group of parents who probably will never consent to vaccination. Their position is rigid but that's a small percentage and the rest of the population can be stratified into what types of communication they require,'' she said.

"I think communication makes a big difference to people who may believe that Mr. Stephan is a hero.''

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