In Massachusetts, a mom who stopped her son’s cancer medicines has been convicted of attempted murder.

Apparently, the son had autism, the mom was not a pristine heroine but a mom who resented being burdened with a handicapped son, and so when he developed a cancer that had a good cure rate with chemotherapy, she didn’t give him the medicine.

The state painted her as doing this to get rid of her son (i.e. murder a handicapped child she didn’t want to care for).

But she insisted that she stopped the medicine because it was making him sick.

But when Kristen LaBrie took the stand, she said the medicine made her son suffer even more.

LaBrie said, “He was very, very sick, and I was afraid, and I did not want to have to make him get any more sick.”

During the week-long trial, prosecutors painted a picture of LaBrie as a single mother who resented having to care for her severely autistic son on her own. But the defense argued that while she was depressed and overwhelmed, she did nothing to intentionally harm him.

Let’s have a bit of a reality check.

One: Many years ago, when a person had a retarded child (and most “autistic” children are retarded) the doctors told the parents to put the kid into an institution, and go on with their lives.

So why wasn’t this mother given such a choice, since she was having problems coping?

Answer: because the human rights folks decided institutionalizing retarded children went against the civil rights of these children.

Yes, some (not all) of these institutions were terrible, but this was the “least bad” option for these children back then.

(twenty years ago, I worked in one such institution that was busy placing these “children”, most in the 40’s or 50’s, into group homes in the community).

For most of them, the “deinstitutionalizing” agenda was good. But for a minority, it actually harmed them.

Some of the “mildly retarded” ended up in jail for petty crimes and ended up sexually abused in the jails. Others ended up homeless.

But no one wants to talk about those with severe behavior problems, including many who now would be labeled “autistic”.

What type of behavior? Well, we had those who screamed and wouldn’t stop. We had self abusers who beat their heads on the wall hard enough to break their nose and cause retinal hemorrhages. (originally we could protect their heads with helmets, but the human rights folks made us take them off). We had some who painted feces all over. Then there were those who masturbated openly. To make things worse, at the same time we were coping with “deinstitutionalization” trends, we were being pressured to stop medications to lessen their behavior.

I supported all of these things, which benefited most of our clients. But knowing how bad the behavior of some of these children can be, I can’t cast the first stone at a mom who couldn’t cope with her autistic son.

Two: and why didn’t some of those who now accuse her of being a “bad” mother, including the doctors, bring up the possibility of “respite care” so she has a day off now and then.

Three: thirty years ago, it was “parents”, not single moms, who chose to put the child into an institution, because a man who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend was ridiculed and might even become an outcast among his family and friends. So where is “daddy” in this story?  Dead from an accident last year, it seems. But where was he for the eight years before then? Did he marry mom? Did he pay child support? And where was his family when all of this was going on?

A lot of blame can be put at the feet of family breakdown due to the sexual revolution. And blame for the sexual revolution can be put on the media that encouraged responsibility-free sex, and on the churches for being too timid to try to remind folks that zipper control is a commandment, and that the”loving your neighbor” part implies not deserting your pregnant girlfriend when she refuses to abort your kid.

Four: the cancer that the child suffered from has an 80 percent cure rate with chemotherapy, and the side effects are tolerable…usually.

But that is in a normal population.

Many of those with brain damage have chronic malnutrition from poor eating habits. And many may have metabolic or genetic syndromes. All of these things affect the immune system. We saw a lot of cancers in our institution, maybe because some cancers are also associated with problems of the immune syndrome.

But all of these things (called comorbidity) can increase the complication rate of chemotherapy.

When I worked in the institution for the retarded, one of the girls developed a similar cancer, which had a 30 percent cure rate with chemotherapy. We gave her chemotherapy twice, and each time she almost died from infection and bleeding. So we ended up stopping the chemotherapy, not because she was handicapped, but because the harm versus cure ratio was too high. A similar decision is often made with elderly patients, or with those who have other chronic diseases that weaken the body.

So did the doctors take this into consideration when they ordered chemotherapy? Did they consider a lower dose or a less toxic protocol, or maybe even an alternative treatment (e.g. radiation) that would have a slightly lower cure rate but a better quality of life for a child who can’t understand why his mother is making him suffer?

Five: was mom helped with medicines and home health aids to assist her with the side effects? Was mom even aware that help was available?

Hill asked Hartstein if people in such circumstances are made aware of what support is available to them.

“Not as much as they probably need to be,” Hartstein said. “To be truthful, navigating systems is a job in and of itself. She probably knew how to navigate a lot of the systems already but the social worker at the hospital, someone else needed to step in and help her more.”

And one also has to ask: Was the help not there because of budget cuts?

Yes, in these days of budgetary restraints, we need to cut expenses, but alas the first thing to go is too often the money for the most vulnerable. And if money for the vulnerable is lacking in “Taxachusetts”, one wonders about what is available in “red state” America.

Again, in “red state” America, the extended family probably still is available (see above). Yet as drug abuse, gangs, and other social pathology spread even into the most conservative areas, the need for government to step is getting stronger.

Six: Was the family helping?

The one thing Jeremy needed was an adult who would walk with him and be that safety net. … Government will not replace that, community is not going to replace that – has to be the family.

In the trial, it sounds like her family and friends backed her. They were aware of her stress. But were they helping her before this happened?

(But before you condemn them for not offering to help her care for her son, you need to know that few people can cope with even ordinary sick folks, let alone sick special needs children, unless they have some experience or training.)

It’s unclear in the stories, yet I think the reason that the jury condemned the mom was that, instead of asking for their help, she hid her actions from everyone, including family and friends.

Parents who have faced similar problems with their special needs children sympathize with mom, but point out that this doesn’t justify the mom withholding the medicine instead of seeking help.

Parents of autistic children said yesterday that they felt compassion for LaBrie and described their own long struggles to understand, care for, and live with their children. They told of children who do not speak or who thrash around the house like freight trains, slamming their bodies on the floor, refusing to be touched, or needing constant stimulation.

Most said such trials can push parents to the edge. But they could not fathom withholding life-saving medications, under any circumstances.

And that is the real reason for the conviction: Not that mom refused to give her son chemotherapy, but that she withheld the therapy for a prolonged period of time and lied to the doctors about this, instead of seeking help from others to help her cope.

A sad story indeed.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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