Is vegan parenting child abuse?

Jun 26, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Image: Altrendo Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Veganism is commonly associated with rigorous health or personal beliefs. It's a strict regime — but is it child abuse?

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Sarah Anne Markham's baby was only 12 days old, but he was already following a strict vegan diet.

Then the baby's pediatrician noted that the baby was dehydrated and not growing, and alerted authorities who took the baby into protective custody. His mother is now being charged with child neglect.

Child neglect or personal belief?

Markham refused any medical treatment for her baby, against the pediatrician's advice, on the grounds that she followed a strict vegan lifestyle for "religious beliefs."

Because of the pediatrician's diagnosis of severe dehydration, as well as concerns about the baby's weight, the doctor instructed Markham to take the baby to the hospital ASAP. He also provided her with medicine for the baby — medicine she did not administer because it wasn't vegan. When Markham failed to take the baby to the hospital, police were dispatched to her home.

Markham informed authorities that she didn't believe that her baby was dehydrated, that she was seeking a second opinion from a "natural" doctor and that she had purchased organic formula for the baby to replace the medicine. When police questioned if the formula was safe for newborns, she stated that because it was organic, it must be OK.

After she agreed to take her baby to the hospital, the police took her into custody for child neglect with great bodily harm.

Mother arrested for child neglect |

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Is veganism cruel?

The issue with a story like this one is that it's not unique. There have been other instances where parents cited vegan beliefs as a defense against neglect of their children, such as the couple whose 6-week-old son died after wasting away to a little over three pounds on a diet of apple juice and soy formula. (Someone explain to me how apple juice could be considered a healthy choice for a baby that young?) Or another couple who refused to treat their 9-month-old daughter after she developed bronchitis and continued feeding her only breast milk until she passed away at only eleven months old.

In both cases, the parents were charged with child abuse and neglect, but is it fair to say that these extreme cases are enough to claim that veganism equals child cruelty?

In short, no. It's not fair to generalize the vegan lifestyle as child abuse because a few vegan parents made extremely bad parenting choices. These parents were guilty of child neglect, but there were other factors in that neglect other than the child's diet (or lack thereof).

Vegan can be healthy

The truth is, veganism can be a safe lifestyle for the whole family to follow. In fact, exclusively breastfed babies are actually already "vegan." But like anything else, if a mother is feeding her baby breast milk, the quality and content of her milk is based on her own diet. Vegan mothers may need to speak to their care providers about taking additional vitamins, such as vitamin B12, or modifying their diet during breastfeeding to ensure their babies are getting the essentials they need to grow. Healthy vegan diets for children are possible, but they also need to be carefully monitored by parents and health care providers.

And not all parents who choose to eat vegan are necessarily doing so out of religious or extreme reasons. Megan Bishop of Michigan, for example, started incorporating vegan products into her family's diet, including for her 1-year-old daughter, when one of her children developed severe egg and dairy allergies. Sometimes, vegan is more than a personal belief.

But choosing a vegan diet or lifestyle and watching your child suffer simply because you believe in your right to have a personal choice over their health? Well, that's a different matter all together. Some may argue that taking a kid to McDonald's might be a form of child abuse, while others may say all-organic is the only way to go. As parents, we get to make that choice and we have to make diet and lifestyle choices every day because, well, it's our job as parents. We do what we think is right. And more importantly, we have that right.

What we don't have a right to do, however, is watch our children suffer as a result of our personal beliefs or desire to live a "healthier" lifestyle.

Veganism is not child abuse.

But not giving a baby the right nutrition is.

Let's not confuse the two.

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