THE HERALD'S OPINION: Health of a child must come before the rights of a parent

AS an advanced, democratic and largely secular nation, Australia affords a substantial degree of freedom to families when it comes to the rearing of children.

There are provisos, of course. The state requires that children are properly educated, although not necessarily in a conventional school. It also insists that the health of a child not be compromised by the beliefs or practices of the parents or carers, although, again, the system recognises a breadth of personal philosophies: religious exceptions to blood transfusions would be one example of the system’s tolerance of diversity.

There are limits, however, to Australia’s “hands off” approach, as shown by the case of a four-year-old boy taken into state government care in Newcastle on Friday evening.

State authorities believe the boy – who lives in a wheelchair and who has cerebral palsy – is “at risk” because of “malnutrition” and “medical neglect”. Hospital tests showing the boy with “abnormally low” potassium levels are described as “consistent with ... malnutrition”.

His mother, who voices concerns with “western medicine”, blames her son’s condition on the vaccinations he received as a newborn. She also endorses the use of “medicinal” cannabis, saying it has improved her son’s condition. In her latest run-in with the authorities, the woman was arrested on Friday at the Church of Ubuntu, which has taken a leading role in promoting the rise of “medicinal” cannabis as part of on overall “alternative” approach to human health. The “church” and its adherents have worked with cannabis advocates across Australia in an effort to have their “medicine” recognised, and the various legal prohibitions on marijuana removed.

Despite some political success, the real test for medicinal cannabis must surely rest with it surviving the same sort of rigorous, evidence-based testing that governs conventional medicine. Ditto for the concerns of the anti-vaccination lobby. Both groups are dealing, by and large, with anecdotal evidence. Until they can replicate their claims scientifically, their views are destined to remain on the fringes. And while adults may be free, more or less, to experiment with their own health, their status as parents does not empower them to put their children in danger. By refusing to co-operate, the parents of this young boy have left the state with little choice but to act as it has.

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