Prosecuting another case of medical neglect: Kristen LaBrie charged with manslaughter

Almost exactly a year ago, I noted the very sad case of Jeremy LaBrie, an 8 year old autistic child with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma whose mother Kristen withheld his medications and failed to take him to appointments with his oncologist. As a result of his failing to undergo his complete course of chemotherapy, his cancer returned with a vengeance. As of one year ago, his odds of survival were estimated to be no more than 10-20%, after having had a good prognosis when initially diagnosed. At the time, I thought it was entirely appropriate for the state to prosecute Kristen LaBrie for medical neglect and even negligent homicide if Jeremy were to die, which at the time seemed very likely.

Unfortunately, the likely came to pass in March. Jeremy died, and now Kristen is being prosecuted for manslaughter:

SALEM, Mass. – A woman accused of withholding cancer treatment from her autistic son has been charged with attempted murder.

Kristen LaBrie is scheduled to appear in Salem Superior Court on Monday on charges of attempted murder, child endangerment and permitting bodily injury to a disabled person.

LaBrie is denying the charges:

In October 2006, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but doctors gave him an 85 percent to 90 percent chance of recovery, MacDougall said. The boy was given large doses of chemotherapy in the hospital and his cancer went into remission.

His mother was given prescriptions for medications he was to be given at home. MacDougall said LaBrie repeatedly failed to pick up prescriptions, but led doctors to believe they were being filled, at one point asking for a liquid version of the medication because her son was having trouble swallowing pills.

“Miss LaBrie never expressed any misgivings about the treatment,” MacDougall said.

In February 2008, after one of Jeremy’s doctors called LaBrie’s pharmacy and learned she had not been filling prescriptions, LaBrie said the pharmacy must have made a mistake, MacDougall said.

It was at that point that doctors discovered that the boy’s cancer had returned as leukemia and was untreatable with chemotherapy, she said.

This case is different than the usual ones that I examine here in that Kristen did not refuse chemotherapy for her son because she wanted to pursue woo. Indeed, there is no evidence that she sought “alternative” therapy or other quackery for her son. There were also factors that made the case complex, including Jeremy’s autism and a divorce. Whatever the reasons that Mrs. LaBrie failed to give Jeremy the followup consolidation and maintenance chemotherapy that he needed, if the allegations are true, this was straight-up medical neglect, pure and simple.

The sad thing is, as I mentioned before, is the likelihood that, if Kristin Ann LeBrie were a religious extremist who refused chemotherapy for her child in favor of prayer or an “alternative medicine” maven who thinks that some vitamin water would be more likely to cure her child than chemotherapy, the law would likely indulge her far more, thanks to laws that exclude religion-inspired neglect from child-neglect laws and that give a parent essentially unlimited rights to choose quackery. On the other hand, I’m heartened by my perception that the law is becoming less tolerant of medical neglect than it once was. I don’t know if that’s my impression because these stories are showing up in the national media more often, but that’s how it seems to me. 13-year-old Danny Hauser, for instance, was not allowed to pursue quackery instead of chemotherapy for his eminently treatable Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Leilani Neumann was convicted of second degree reckless homicide for choosing prayer instead of insulin and intravenous fluids to treat her daughter’s diabetic ketoacidosis. Now Kristin Ann LaBrie is being prosecuted for neglecting her autistic son, leading to his death from leukemia.

Let’s hope this really is a trend. As competent adults, people have the right to refuse care if they want or to choose quackery if they want to, as long as they understand the consequences, for virtually any reason they want to. They do not have the right to endanger their children with such choices.