Spare the milk and starve the baby?

I'm intrigued by the story of these two Atlanta screwballs who killed their baby by starving him to death with a radical vegan diet. Now the child's grandmother is afraid her son will starve to death in prison because of his veganism:

Lamont Thomas' mother fears he may soon die by staying true to his vegan lifestyle.

The 31-year-old Buckhead resident was rail-thin, with a gaunt face and bones protruding from his neck, when he shuffled into a Fulton County courtroom Wednesday in leg and waist chains. There, a judge sentenced him to life in prison in the starvation death in 2004 of his only child, Crown.

The child's parents said they fed him organic and soy products, but doctors at Piedmont Hospital, the medical examiner and a nutritionist specializing in veganism all testified at trial that the child had been underfed, not just fed the wrong diet for an infant.

At six weeks, Crown weighed 3 1/2 pounds, and doctors could count the bones on his skeletal frame.

Carolyn Thomas defended her son, saying after the sentencing hearing: "My son was afraid all along: 'Nobody understands us.' "

The baby was born in a bathtub, the parents distrusted doctors, and (they claim) they weren't given the resources to disprove the prosecution's "theories":
The grandmother said she had urged them to take Crown to a doctor for a checkup, but her son wanted to raise the baby without interference from doctors. Thomas' attorney, Brandon Lewis, said the couple worried about hospital germs.

Sanders told the judge during Wednesday's hearing: "I loved my son, and I did not starve him."

Sanders delivered Crown in the bathtub of the Buckhead apartment she shared with Thomas.

"She went through the pain of delivering herself, and they don't think that's love?" the child's grandmother said.

The first time Crown's parents took him to see a doctor was on April 25, 2004. The baby was already dead.

Thomas told the judge through tears that prosecutors had resources his court-appointed attorney didn't have.

"It takes money to disprove their theories; money we don't have," he said.

At the hospital, the parents said they fed their child organic apple juice and soy milk, which has a label warning parents not to use it as an infant food.

Naturally, organized vegans are irate that the parents are even being called "vegans" (a word they place in quotes). An article titled "Don't blame veganism for child neglect" is typical:
In a sad and tragic story, the news recently broke that a "vegan couple" were found guilty of starving their 6-week old baby to death. The AP story reports that the couple fed the baby mostly soy milk and apple juice. If that's true, then the couple's crime wasn't that they were vegan. They were either incredibly misinformed, stupid, or both.

First, one wonders why a child so young was not being breast fed. Veganism, which involves avoiding all animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, does not in any way preclude breast feeding. In fact, one of the arguments in favor of veganism is that the milk of cows is best suited for calves, the same way that human milk is best suited for baby humans.

Second, even if the couple wanted to use a soy product instead, any pediatrician would have told them to use a soy-based formula, not soy milk. In fact, most soy milk products are clearly labeled as NOT being a substitute for baby formula.

Well, the soy milk fed to the dead baby was apparently clearly labeled.

The problem is that when I clicked on the link the last author provides, I could find no actual vegan infant forumula. But I did find the following:

Most infants who are not breastfeeding exclusively should be given a cow's milk based iron fortified formula.

Soy formulas are made with soy protein and are lactose free. Brands include Enfamil ProSobee, Similac Isomil, and Nestle Good Start Supreme Soy. They are good for children who don't tolerate lactose or milk proteins. ]

Elemental formulas are also lactose free and are made with hydrolysate proteins, which are easy to digest for infants with protein allergies. Types of elemental formulas include Nutramigen, Pregestamil and Alimentum.

The problem is that these formulas are not truly vegan, as they contain animal-derived ingredients such as Taurine and L-Methionine. These substances often come up in arguments between over things like "vegan cat food" (yes, there is such a thing, although it is controversial). In the last link, there's a ferocious debate over Taurine, with one side contending that most commercially available Taurine is of bovine origin, and the other claiming it's synthetic. This is a new topic for me, and I am not about to spend all day tracking it down, but it does appear that there's a nutritive difference between natural and artificial Taurine -- with the former being "essential":
Natural taurine is an essential constituent of formula milk for infants and, because of the inferior nutritional value (), of synthetic forms, it is important to discriminate between these and taurines derived from a natural source.
For obvious reasons, natural Taurine therefore appears to be a major component in infant formulas. Additionally, this vegan site warns that synthetic Taurine is bad for the environment:
Taurine - is found in the bile of mammals. It can be synthesized in a lab, but in doing so is encredibly harsh on the environment.
Wouldn't want our baby to have a bad carbon footprint, now would we?

True vegans who cannot breastfeed may be out of luck, because as best as I can readily determine, there is no such thing as a true, pure, vegan infant formula. Here's a vegan doctor:

For those searching for an organic and vegan infant formula, unfortunately, at this time US and UK food industries do not offer any completely vegan soy-based formulas.
More discussion here of the serious problems faced by vegan mothers -- especially those unable to properly breastfeed their babies.

There also seem to be health issues related to excess Manganese from eating too much soy.


Let me admit that my bias here. I am not a vegan, although I have from time to time been a vegetarian for health reasons (I have found vegetarianism to be an effective way to shed excess pounds as well as save money). But I've never been a vegetarian for moral reasons, and I have even less inclination towards veganism. That does not mean that I would stop anyone from being a vegan. The problem I have with vegans is that many of them are evangelical, and see their veganism as a quasi religion. If only they left it at that I wouldn't mind, but in addition a lot of them see it as part of an abolitionist movement -- which means they want to impose their views on the rest of society, even by government force.

My biases aside, I do see an interesting legal issue here. Suppose for the sake of argument that a radical vegan mother was unable to breastfeed her baby, and that there was no adequate, truly vegan replacement. Suppose further that she maintained her veganism was akin to a religion (at least one test case in California made that claim, and of course there are supportive law review articles). Wouldn't she have the same rights as a Jehovah's Witness or Christian Scientist? What rights are those, anyway?

This is not as idle a question as it might appear, as it isn't the first time vegan babies have starved. In 2003, a vegan couple in New York was convicted of starving their baby (who fortunately was taken away from them and managed to live). Reading between the lines, I get the impression that they may have seen their veganism as quasi-religious:

Lawyers for the Swintons said they would appeal the verdict, noting that the first-degree assault charge included a finding that an offender had depraved intentions. Part of the Swintons' defense had been that they were not knowledgeable enough about child nutrition and did not realize that they were endangering their child until hospital workers told them that IIce was sick.

''I don't see justice here,'' said Christopher Shella, a lawyer for Mrs. Swinton. ''That they made the wrong choice doesn't make it depraved, given how much they cared about their child.''

Well, their wrong choice included rejecting medical care, and choosing not to breastfeed:
Mrs. Swinton, who is 32, gave birth to IIce at her home three months prematurely. They never received prenatal or postnatal care. In an interview yesterday as she waited for the verdict, Mrs. Swinton said she had been a wayward, 300-pound young adult when she decided to adopt the vegan diet. She and her husband of seven years, who is also 32, have been on it for several years.

Mrs. Swinton said she chose not to breast-feed IIce. After trying to feed her different kinds of commercial baby formula for several months, the couple decided to put her on a natural foods diet. Examining the label on commercial baby formula cans, Mrs. Swinton said she tried to replicate the chemical composition with natural ingredients, including ground nuts and puréed fruits and vegetables.

''We were brand-new parents trying to do everything we could for her,'' Mrs. Swinton said yesterday. She was rueful, noting that she had ''never even got a speeding ticket'' and now faced prison.

Amy Lanou, the nutrition director for the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, testified during the three-week trial that both vegan and vegetarian diets would allow breast milk, and barring that, soy-based baby formula.

Hmmm..... Considering that there are no truly vegan formulas, it sounds as if Amy Lanou may have been fudging a bit on that one. (But my guess is that she was a prosecution witness. Had I been defending the parents, I'd have had a doctor testify differently.) The prosecutor argued that the parents were feeding the child a "gerbil" diet:
Mr. Rosenbaum, the prosecutor, said the care given to IIce was akin to what a child might offer to a ''pet gerbil.'' He said that no matter what the parents' intentions, their failure to seek any type of medical care as IIce's condition worsened merited the criminal charges. In addition to assault, the parents were convicted of first-degree reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. They will be sentenced on May 16.
Race is alleged to have been involved, although I'm not quite sure why:
Members of several black advocacy groups attended most of the trial and after the verdict, some said that from the start, the mostly white jury was against the Swintons, who are black. The jurors, who deliberated for two days, had been sequestered since Wednesday morning, prompting Judge Richard L. Buchter to remind them as they were dismissed that ''there's a war going on, and it's people like you serving in this system that is what America is all about.''
While that last sentence about the war going on is wholly unrelated to race (and thus non-sequiturish?) a jury's racial composition alone does not prove bias. Would the same mostly white jury have acquitted a white couple for starving their baby? I see no reason why, and the issue does not seem to have been raised on appeal. At least, it is not mentioned in the appellate opinion, which sustained most of the counts of the verdict, as well as the sentences. The dissent, however, argues that while the child was neglected, the parents were unable to form the requisite criminal intent for reckless endangerment.

These are interesting cases, and I'm sure there will be more of them.

Especially if there's no such thing as a true vegan infant formula.

(One of these days I really should get around to exploring the increasingly urgent vegan cat issue.)

posted by Eric on 05.10.07 at 09:10 AM


In the news I see a story regarding a pair of vegan parents who have been sentenced to life in prison for murdering their infant child. They were convicted on charges of: felony murder, malice murder, involuntary manslaughter, and cruelty to children.

Ahab - Vegan murder?   ·  May 10, 2007 10:07 AM

I don't see this as a crime, I see it as mental illness. The vegan equivalent of anorexia--the description of the parents as gaunt, the baby obviously near death, the fear of not just hospitals, but even of doctors.

It looks like the parents tried to do the right thing according to their beliefs, but they were unable to realize that they were hurting their child and needed to change their approach. Now the grandmother thinks her son is more likely to starve to death than eat lousy prison food.

This couple needs to be committed, not imprisoned.

tim maguire   ·  May 10, 2007 12:06 PM

Of course they knew what they were doing was harmful, the mother was a college graduate, she was far from stupid. You dont watch your child waste away and think its okay. Why didnt grandma intervene despite what her son said about no doctors? Why didnt she call child protective services? You cant tell me that all these people were mentally ill, I dont buy it

alison   ·  May 10, 2007 5:52 PM

this is very, very sad. i also think they were stupid and mentally ill (perhaps from lack of nutrition themselves). but i don't think they should be in prison. the loss of their child should be enough punishment. this world is a messed up place.

Anonymous   ·  May 14, 2007 4:39 PM

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