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Alleged Death by Veganism: Why a False Story Has Legs


Tuesday, May. 29, 2007

Earlier this month, a jury found Lamont Thomas and Jade Sanders guilty of murder and assorted other offenses in connection with the starvation death of their child, Crown Shakur. A judge sentenced both parents to life imprisonment. The baby was six weeks old when he died, yet he weighed only three-and-a-half pounds at the time, a weight that is dangerously low even at birth.

A child's death is always tragic, particularly when it is protracted, painful and as unnecessary as Crown Shakur's was. But what made his death especially newsworthy was not the fact that it was tragic; it was the unusual defense that his parents mounted: They said their son died because they had fed him a vegan diet.

I will consider here the transparent weakness of their claim and attempt to explain why so many omnivores have nonetheless found it appealing.

What Is a Vegan?

For readers who are unfamiliar with distinctions between "vegetarians" and "vegans," some definitions may be in order. Though people use the terms in different ways, a "vegetarian" generally refers to someone whose diet does not include the flesh of animals (including mammals, birds, and fish). A "vegan," by contrast, refers to someone who does not eat or use products made out of animals or resulting from the exploitation of animals. A vegan, for example, does not eat eggs or dairy products and does not wear leather shoes.

People who describe themselves as vegetarians or vegans may have a variety of reasons for their choices. Some cite health benefits or environmental impact. Others express an ethical commitment to the principle that it is wrong to inflict pain and death on animals to obtain products that people do not need to survive or thrive. In terms of sheer numbers, the production of meat, milk, and eggs accounts for most of the animal suffering inflicted by human beings.

Though a growing number of men and women have made a commitment to ethical veganism (or have taken steps in that direction), an overwhelming majority of our planet's inhabitants continue to consume animal products. As with any minority practice, it is therefore not entirely surprising that the majority would harbor some prejudices about vegans and their diet. A common misconception is that one cannot obtain sufficient protein or iron without meat, dairy, or eggs.

Some who voice such concerns are genuinely interested in learning more about the vegan way of life, and their inquiries ought to be encouraged. Others, however, pose health questions like these out of hostility to the possibility that veganism offers a practical way to live.

Did the Baby Die of Veganism?

Enter Lamont Thomas and Jade Sanders, the couple whose child starved to death. The baby was in his parents' custody. He weighed less than a normal newborn baby at six weeks old. He died of starvation. In all that time, he was never taken to a doctor. Why did he die? It must be because he was a vegan, said the defense.

Though the prosecutor and the jury rejected this defense, it nonetheless had what Stephen Colbert might call "truthiness." Perhaps eating meat, dairy, and eggs supports animal cruelty, but we have no alternative - just look at Crown Shakur, the baby who died of veganism, the story would go.

Last week, the New York Times published an op/ed titled "Death By Veganism" that misleadingly characterized Crown Shakur's death in just such terms. The reality, of course, is that no one familiar with the case (other than the guilty defendants) attributed the boy's death to the failure to feed him animal products. Indeed, many babies his age cannot tolerate dairy, and pediatricians accordingly recommend soy formulas for mothers who cannot or will not breastfeed - effectively, a pediatrician-approved vegan diet.

For those who do not want to feel guilty about eating or feeding their children the products of unspeakable cruelty, however, the notion that veganism killed a baby is as seductive as it is false.

Believing What We Want to Believe

People are often drawn to the beliefs that provide the most comfort, rather than those that best correspond to reality. At one time, for example, it felt good to think that the sun revolved around the earth - that our planet was at the center of the universe. Copernicus then came along and discovered the heliocentric truth - a truth that Galileo was later persecuted rather than praised for adopting and defending.

Similarly, many people disliked the idea that our species descended from other animals, so they rejected the lessons of Darwin. Sadly, this is not a thing of the past, as no fewer than three presidential candidates - Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo - evidenced at the first Republican debate.

I am not unsympathetic to those who would rather not think about unpleasant facts. The truth can be overwhelming, and it is a natural survival instinct to focus on the positive. Such an approach can become a problem, though, when it forms the basis for decisions about how to act.

To give one famous example, as Ron Suskind has reported, an aide to President Bush criticized Suskind and others like him for occupying "what we [in the Bush Administration] call the reality-based community," a community made up of people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." "That's not the way the world really works anymore," the aide reportedly continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

To shun accurate observation of the world in favor of imperial imposition of our own reality is to embrace of the view that "might makes right," an approach that has done little to endear the United States to the rest of the global community.

The philosophy that "might makes right" is, not coincidentally, what animal farming is all about. We have the power to cause unending suffering to animals so that we can consume foods we do not need. Human beings comprise an empire, in that sense, and the animals are our helpless subjects. But the fact that we can do what we do to animals does not make it right. And despite misleading reports of "death by veganism," it also does not make it necessary for either our health or that of our children.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor and Frederick B. Lacey Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.

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