As the Western world gets fatter and fatter, the solutions to slimming it down get ever more draconian. In Britain yesterday, the government issued guidelines saying "children under the age of 5, including babies who can’t walk yet, should exercise every day." Today, in the States, a pair of Harvard scholars writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association advocate stripping away the custody rights of parents of super obese children. They're for real!
"Despite the discomfort posed by state intervention, it may sometimes be necessary to protect a child," said Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard's School of Public Health. The study's co-author, David Ludwig, says taking away peoples' children "ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible." Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital, said his eureka moment was when a 90-pound, 3-year-old girl entered his obesity clinic a number of years ago," reports Lindsey Tanner at the Associated Press.
Her parents had physical disabilities, little money and difficulty controlling her weight. Last year, at age 12, she weighed 400 pounds and had developed diabetes, cholesterol problems, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.
"Out of medical concern, the state placed this girl in foster care, where she simply received three balanced meals a day and a snack or two and moderate physical activity," he said. After a year, she lost 130 pounds. Though she is still obese, her diabetes and apnea disappeared; she remains in foster care, he said.
But not so fast! The academic world isn't in agreement. In response to the JAMA article, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan is pushing back in a column for MSNBC. Here are his sticking points:
Legality "Our laws give enormous authority to parents and rightly so," he writes. "The only basis for compelling medical treatment against a parent’s wishes are if a child is at imminent risk of death — meaning days or hours — and a proven cure exists for what threatens to kill them. Obesity does not pass these requirements. The risk of death from obesity is real, but it is way down the road for kids."
Practical issues "The number of kids involved — an estimated 2 million children with body-mass index above the 99th percentile — would quickly swamp already overwhelmed social service departments," he writes. "And, no matter what you do with overweight children, sooner or later they are going back home where their often overweight parents will still be."
It's the wrong focus "Before we start grabbing porky youths out of their homes and sending them off to government fat camps, might we try to change our food culture? This means doing what we have done for smoking. Demonize the companies that sell and market food that is not nutritious. That means you, candy, soda, fried food and snack food outfits. Tax them too."