Whenever a vegan baby dies — a rare but always heavily publicized occurrence — the vegan community initiates a ritual shaming and shunning of the responsible parents so as to keep veganism’s reputation pristine. Nothing is allowed to tarnish the big, shiny green V. This damage control is invariably some version of: ”Veganism didn’t do that, bad parenting did it! Babies of omnivorous parents die too! These were bad parents who just so happened to coincidentally be vegans! This isn’t a vegan issue at all.” 

The recent story about the conviction of vegan parents Joel and Sergine Le Moaligou, whose baby died of pneumonia and was found to be deficient in weight, albumin, b12 and vitamin A, is no exception. If we are to believe vegan dietitians, bloggers, message board members and comment writers, veganism was not the — or even an — issue here.

There is an argument for this airbrushed vegan version. Most vegan babies don’t die. And a closer look at the vegan babies who do die reveals parents who made dangerous choices that most vegan parents wouldn’t make. That applies in this most recent instance too.

Sergine and Joel took their baby Louise, who had bronchitis, in for a check-up with Dr. Stéphane Bernard. Dr. Bernard was alarmed when he found that Louise was feverish and surmised her bronchitis had possibly progressed to pneumonia. He told them to take Louise to the hospital for a diagnosis and perhaps treatment. Most parents would not have hesitated — they would have booked the next available appointment. But for Joel and Sergine, the thought of taking Louise to a hospital was for some reason frightening. Instead, they consulted Jeannette Dextreit’s 1972 book The Healthy Guide to Childhood, and treated their 11-month-old baby’s bronchitis and then pneumonia with cabbage, mustard poultices and clay. Louise became listless and underweight, and developed diarrhea. The parents still failed to act beyond Dextreit’s homeopathic tips, and Louise died.

Clearly these are outrageously irresponsible parents no matter what their diets. Why is anyone even trying to tie this to veganism?

Well, because Louise (who got all of her food from breastfeeding) was found to be deficient in vitamin A and b12, vitamins that come from animal products and are useful in preventing the infections that killed Louise. Vitamin A supports immune function and B12 deficiency can lead to frequent upper respiratory infections, fever, diarrhea, faulty digestion, no appetite, chronic coughing and neutropenia — a low white blood cell count that impairs the body’s ability to fight infections. Louise was also deficient in albumin and underweight. 

The propensity for respiratory infections with b12 deficiency seems relevant to me, as does a compromised immune function with a vitamin A deficiency. The protein content of breast milk always decreases over time (which is one reason parents are advised to start feeding their children solid foods around the six-month mark) but many parents continue to solely feed their children breast milk anyway. Breastfeeding.com seems to approve, although they really freaking love breastfeeding. It’s possible then that faulty digestion and lack of appetite from b12 deficiency might have played a part in the baby’s albumin and weight deficiency, but that’s just conjecture. 

Some French authorities alleged that the mother’s veganism directly led to a compromised breast milk quality. The American Dietetic Association’s position paper on a vegetarian diet indirectly gives credence to this theory, warning that:

Infants of vegetarian mothers appear to have lower cord and plasma DHA than do infants of nonvegetarians. Breast milk DHA is lower in vegans and lacto-ovovegetarians than in nonvegetarians. Because of DHA’s beneficial effects on gestational length, infant visual function, and neurodevelopment, pregnant and lactating vegetarians and vegans should choose food sources of DHA (fortified foods or eggs from hens fed DHA-rich microalgae) or use a microalgae-derived DHA supplement. Supplementation with ALA, a DHA precursor, in pregnancy and lactation has not been shown to be effective in increasing infant DHA levels or breast milk DHA concentration.

The ADA paper doesn’t mention b12 or vitamin A levels of vegan breast milk, but Melissa McEwen’s blog entry “Vegan Style Creationism Woo Kills Baby" links to a number of case studies of infants who were severely impaired because their vegan mother’s milk was b12 deficient.

It’s not surprising for breast milk to be deficient in b12 if the mother is vegan and not supplementing (and a lot of vegans do not supplement), but what about vitamin A? Didn’t vegan RD Ginny Messina just post an article praising plant-based over animal-based means of obtaining vitamin A? Here is the concluding paragraph of her article called “Getting vitamin A the vegan way prevents chronic disease,” posted a day before the French vegan baby story broke:

Preformed vitamin A from animal foods doesn’t have the same health benefits as the pro-vitamins found in plants. It’s not required in the diet, either, as long as your diet is rich in plant foods that provide pro-vitamin A compounds. The evidence suggests that getting vitamin A the way vegans do—from fruits and vegetables—is a best bet for health.

Am I being paranoid, or is Messina a little sneaky with her wording here? “Preformed vitamin A from animal foods doesn’t have the same health benefits as the pro-vitamins found in plants.” The implication here is that the pro-vitamins found in plants are better, but if you pay attention, she’s not necessarily saying that. All she said is that their health benefits are not “the same.” She implies that fruits and vegetables are better sources of vitamin A than liver without actually having to say it. Also, how can something can be *a* “best bet for health”? Something is either *the* best bet, or it’s an inferior bet. There are not multiple best bets for the same thing. Again, Messina wants us to read that veganism is superior, but since the facts don’t necessarily support that, her wording subtly avoids commitment. 

And as Denise Minger noticed, the study that inspired Messina’s article (“Serum α-Carotene Concentrations and Risk of Death Among US Adults”) has nothing to do with vitamin A. It looked at the pro-vitamin alpha-carotene’s power as an antioxidant; that, and not its ability to replace preformed vitamin A in the diet (which is what Messina latches onto), is why it protects against mortality. Denise also pointed out that the conversion rate of alpha-carotene (the carotenoid that Messina’s post is about)  into vitamin A is even worse than it is for beta-carotene: “Alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are also converted to vitamin A, but only half as efficiently as beta-carotene.”

So if you’re “getting vitamin A the vegan way,” you should have plenty of antioxidants, but you might still be deficient in vitamin A! That is why Messina words it so cleverly.  Vitamin A may not have “the same” health benefits as the pro-vitamins found in plants, but it sure is useful.

The Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases says:

Vitamin A deficiency is an immunodeficiency disorder characterized by widespread alterations in immunity, including pathological alterations in mucosal surfaces, impaired antibody responses to challenge with protein antigens, changes in lymphocyte subpopulations, and altered T- and B-cell function. Vitamin A and its metabolites are immune enhancers that have been shown to potentiate antibody responses to T cell-dependent antigens, increase lymphocyte proliferation responses to antigens and mitogens, inhibit apoptosis, and restore the integrity and function of mucosal surfaces. Vitamin A and related retinoids may have potential applications in therapy for some infectious diseases.

The Annual Review of Nutrition begs to agree:

Vitamin A deficiency impairs innate immunity by impeding normal regeneration of mucosal barriers damaged by infection, and by diminishing the function of neutrophils, macrophages, and natural killer cells. Vitamin A is also required for adaptive immunity and plays a role in the development of T both-helper (Th) cells and B-cells. In particular, vitamin A deficiency diminishes antibody-mediated responses directed by Th2 cells, although some aspects of Th1-mediated immunity are also diminished. These changes in mucosal epithelial regeneration and immune function presumably account for the increased mortality seen in vitamin A–deficient infants, young children, and pregnant women in many areas of the world today.

It would appear that vitamin A, which is only available in a preformed state in animal products, would have been useful to Sergine and baby Louise. And as Messina forgot to mention, some people aren’t very good at converting carotenoids from plants into vitamin A, which can make it difficult to get enough of it on a vegan diet:

"The vitamin A activity of ß-carotene, even when measured under controlled conditions, can be surprisingly low and variable." ("Variability in conversion of ß-carotene to vitamin A in men as measured by using a double-tracer study design”)

"Variable absorption and conversion of ß-carotene to vitamin A both contribute to the variable response to consumption of ß-carotene [in women]." ("Variability of the conversion of ß-carotene to vitamin A in women measured by using a double-tracer study design”)

"The relative bioavailability of ß-carotene from vegetables compared with purified ß-carotene ranges between 3 and 6% for green leafy vegetables, 19 and 34% for carrots and 22 and 24% for broccoli. … Research into the functional benefits of carotenoids should consider the fact that the bioavailability of ß-carotene in particular is one order of magnitude higher when provided as a pure compound added to foods than when it is present naturally in foods." ("Dietary Factors That Affect the Bioavailability of Carotenoids”)

"There is little evidence to support the general assumption that dietary carotenoids can improve vitamin A status. … An additional daily portion of dark-green leafy vegetables did not improve vitamin A status, whereas a similar amount of beta-carotene from a simpler matrix produced a strong improvement. These results suggest that the approach to combating vitamin A deficiency by increases in the consumption of provitamin A carotenoids from vegetables should be re-examined." ("Lack of improvement in vitamin A status with increased consumtion of dark-green leafy vegetables”)

(Thanks, Denise!)

Strange that in Messina’s vegan baby death damage control article, ”Vegan diets are safe and healthy for babies,” posted the day after she praised vegetable-derived vitamin A to the sky, Messina didn’t mention the power of plant carotenoids once as she countered the concerns that Louise’s deficiency-related death raised. Not a good time to talk about plants being a best bet for vitamin A? 

As vegans are quick to point out, it is easy to avoid b12 deficiency if you supplement. But vegans are not told to supplement preformed vitamin A, so if Louise’s mother had been eating a lot of carotenoid-containing produce and it wasn’t converting properly, her “best bet” would have been to consume vitamin-A-rich foods such as veal liver, endangered bluefin tuna, foie gras and butter oil (a typical French main course, in other words), which would have had the added bonus of resolving her b12 issues too. Except that this would have violated veganism, perhaps her most deeply held principle.

Nor should we be so quick to let veganism off the hook for Sergine’s and Louise’s b12 deficiency. Vegans often mistrust conventional nutrition authorities (except when it’s the ADA saying that veganism is appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle), and one reason is that these authorities are often against veganism. Vegans know that veganism is morally right and is as healthy as omnivorism, if not healthier, so how much faith can they have in someone who tells them they will die if they don’t eat Bambi?

This leaves vegans looking to vegan authorities for nutritional and medical guidance. English-speaking vegans are fortunate to have Jack Norris RD of VeganHealth.org and Michael Greger MD fighting b12 indifference in the vegan world. But is there a Jacques Norris in France? Probably not. As Kim Willsher at The Guardian wrote:

Studies suggest four million Britons may be vegetarians, though others claim 10% of the population are “meat avoiders”. In France there are an estimated one million vegetarians. A non-scientific survey of Facebook reveals that the British-based Vegan society has 60,978 fans, while the French Vegetarian Association has 1,518 and the Vegetarian and Vegan page 1,173. (By comparison the French “Slap a Vegetarian with an Escalope” page has 168,294 fans.)

If it is hard work being a Gallic vegetarian, it is nigh on impossible being a vegan. The Le Moaligous were forced to educate their elder daughter Élodie, now 13, at home. French school canteens are largely run on the premise that a child should eat everything on their plate. In her blog, food writer Rosa Jackson recounts how when her son Sam became a vegetarian, a member of the school staff explained to her: “Vegetarianism is not a recognised diet in France. We’ll have to put everything on the plate even if he doesn’t eat it.”

One poster responding to the blog recounted how a chef in Normandy insisted the omelette he had served was still vegetarian even though it was covered in “just a foie gras sauce”.

This helps explain why the slaughterhouse footage that they watched in 2000 inspired the Le Moaligous to pack up and leave Paris for the countryside, where they opened a natural food store and homeschooled their child. Becoming vegan in just about any country puts you at odds with the country’s prevailing culinary culture, but this is especially the case in France. Of all the European cities I went to as a vegan, Paris was the worst. There are some vegetarian restaurants in Paris, and I had a decent mushroom loaf covered in a berry sauce a number of times, but the majority of my French dining consisted of cheeseless pizza and tahini-drenched Maoz vegetarian falafel. So I can see why Les Moaligous felt the need to make a major break from French society when they quit stealing the milk, eggs and flesh of sentient beings. 

I also don’t find it surprising that they were mistrustful of French medical authorities, preferring to cling to a 40 year-old natural health book that was probably one of the few pro-vegan books they could find in French. Their moral beliefs demanding a diet without animal products, combined with their faith in a book that likely did not focus on the importance of vegan supplementation, no French VeganHealth.org (no Internet at all, in fact) and a probable dearth of supplemented vegan products (I’m assuming France is “behind” on packaged vegan nut extracts and all that) could not have done wonders for their b12 levels.

But even in the United States they might not have fared much better. The reason Jack Norris and Michael Greger have to constantly remind vegans to take their b12 is that there are other vegan authorities simultaneously assuring vegans that they don’t have to take their b12. Respected vegan MD John McDougall says that a vegan’s chance of developing a b12 deficiency is “one in a million,” writing:

On average, for someone raised on the Western diet, about 2 to 5 milligrams of B12 are stored, mostly in the liver. This means most people have at least a three year reserve of this vital nutrient. Conservation of B12 by the body boosts the time this supply lasts by 10-fold. After excretion through the bile into the intestines most of the B12 is reabsorbed by the ileum for future use. As a result of this recirculation it actually takes, on average, 20 to 30 years to become deficient after becoming a strict vegan. That is if no vitamin B12 were consumed—which is impossible, even on a strict vegan diet, because of bacterial sources of B12 from the person’s bowel, contaminated vegetable foods, and the environment.

In The China Study, which Vegan.com raves “keeps selling and selling and selling,” vegan hero T. Colin Campbell PhD offers this tepid supplementation recommendation:

It is estimated that we hold a three-year store of vitamin B12 in our bodies. If you do not eat any animal products for three years or more, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consider taking a small b12 supplement on occasion, or going to the doctor annually to check your blood levels of B vitamins and homocysteine. Likewise, if you never get sunshine exposure, especially during the winter months, you might want to take a vitamin D supplement. I would recommend taking the smallest dose you can find and making more of an effort to get outside.

I call these supplements ‘separation from nature pills,’ because a healthy diet of fresh, organic plant-based foods grown in rich soil and a lifestyle that regularly takes you outdoors is the best answer to these issues. (232)

Campbell has become even more dismissive of b12 since then, as we can see in “B12 Breakthrough — Missing Nutrient Found in Plants”:

I’ve asked myself why, if the health benefits of a plant-based diet are as comprehensive as contemporary research suggests - meaning that Nature did the packaging for us during our evolution and that a plant-based diet is our natural diet - then why did she leave out this one very important piece of the puzzle? Having paid attention to the research literature and having questioned clinicians who treat vegan patients, I’ve reached the following somewhat unorthodox conclusions and observations:
1. Contrary to the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines, B12 can be found in plants.
2. Organically grown plants contain higher levels of B12 than plants grown non-organically with chemical fertilizers.
3. Plant roots are able to absorb certain vitamins produced by soil microorganisms, thus suggesting that plants grown in healthy soil, full of microflora and microfauna, are more nutritious.
4. Vegans - and anyone else - should be able to obtain B12 by consuming organically grown produce.

And in a recent lecture he said:

The recommendation is generally made that you should take a B12 supplement. I have not been in the business of recommending supplements, really, of any kind much. But on this one I listen to my clinical friends, first, who say that if somebody is really low on B12, you do see some symptoms of B12 deficiency, apparently. Or they do. But on the science side of it, I’m not convinced that we really have the science sorted out on that one even then. And B12, incidentally, has been used by the people favoring animal foods as a reason for consuming animal foods because only foods produce B12. That’s silly argument. A silly argument. We’re animals too. And we produce some B12 in the gut. So that’s simply incorrect. B12 is produced by microorganisms. And it can be in the soil, in our large intestinal tracts.

These aren’t just any ol’ cranks. They are certified vegan doctors, unsullied by corporate ties, crusading against the corrupt meat and dairy propaganda machine, spreading the truth of plant-based superiority. These should be the most trustworthy figures of all! And what these pro-veg PhDs are telling vegans is that the need to supplement is exaggerated or non-existent.

When non-supplemented vegan foods don’t contain b12 and preformed vitamin A… and top vegan authorities tell vegans not to worry about b12… and not everyone can effectively convert plant carotenoids to vitamin A… and a vegan mother has b12- and vitamin A-deficient breast milk… and b12 deficiency is linked to respiratory infections… and vitamin A deficiency is linked to reduced immune function… and their baby dies due to complications from a respiratory infection… is it really fair for vegans to say that veganism has nothing whatsoever to do with this

On the other hand, it’s not like Sergine would have known about her vitamin deficiencies, since she and her husband were adverse to doctors. So wasn’t it really this Western medicine phobia, and not veganism, that destroyed their child?

One of the assumptions there is that the Le Moaligous were always suspicious of medicine, independent of whether they were vegan or not. Therefore, if they had been omnivores raising Louise and found out that she required medical care, they would have ignored their doctor’s advice and rubbed raw bison liver on her tummy as they prayed to the spirit of the dead animal, or some other such holistic omnivore mumbo jumbo.

I find this implausible. The fact that they had a healthy baby when they weren’t vegans (who is now a healthy vegan teen), and that they moved into the country and opened a health food store once they became vegans, tells me that their embracing medicine-free natural living was part of the vegan package for them. I’m pretty sure they didn’t care much about what Ms. Dextreit had to say until they turned their backs on French culture and all her gluttonous, animal abusing ways.

I can say from my own experience that I didn’t believe in the yin and yang of food when I was still eating at Wendy’s.

Some vegans may wish to interject here that becoming vegan doesn’t have to mean avoiding hospitals and believing that brown rice is the perfect balance of yin and yang. That’s true. Veganism also doesn’t have to mean giving up honey, trashing food that you discover has whey as the last ingredient or refusing to apply to a college that has a red logo and thus uses carmine from bugs in their acceptance letters.

Most vegans would say that not going to your college of choice because their red logo necessitates using bugs in their ink is crazy (especially when you think about all the bugs killed to make the paper and mail it!). Yet vegans who know that carmine is a vegan no-no usually avoid foods that have it on the ingredients list. Changing your university plans to spare bugs is just a more consistent version of that.

Ever hear of ”The Seven Levels of Veganism”? Different vegans approach veganism with varying levels of fervency. The sin of using medicines that were tested on animals and contain animal products is one that most vegans overlook if the alternative is sickness, pain and maybe death. But even for vegans who are okay with medicine, it’s commonly a conflict-fraught issue for them. One banal example is that severely vitamin-D depleted vegans often feel guilty for taking non-vegan D3 pills after vegan D2 doesn’t do the job. But if the situation is dire enough, most will do it anyway.

Some vegans, however, take veganism more seriously than that. For them, it’s important to avoid medicines that were tested on animals or contain animal products… no matter what. 

Somewhere in these French news videos (special thanks to Claudia Eve Beauchesne and Cyrena for translating them for me!), it’s said that Joel and Sergine didn’t follow their doctor’s orders to bring Louise to the hospital out of fear that the hospital staff would not respect their personal convictions. Whether this refers specifically to their objection to animal exploitation or refers to the holistic lifestyle that came with their veganism, could it be any more clear what idea led to the death of their child? Vegans want to say that veganism had nothing to do with Joel and Sergine’s hospital-avoiding shenanigans. But here they are, saying that veganism was precisely the reason they they steered clear of the hospital. How blatantly must they spell it out for you, vegan apologists? Their child was sick and deficient in nutrients because of veganism. And then they refused to take their child to the hospital, also because of veganism. Yet veganism was just an innocent bystander that just happened to be strolling by? 

Just because most vegans aren’t principled enough to risk their child’s life in order to avoid immoral medicine doesn’t mean that veganism is not involved when some vegan parents are that principled.

It’s not as if the Le Moaligous made up the vegan rule against animal-tested medicines. In this Q&A column, vegan author Jo Stephaniak advises a vegan to consider sterilization or the rhythm method as an alternative to birth control that is tested on animals. She absolves the morally conflicted vegan from self-loathing if she is unable to find a vegan birth control method that works for her, but it remains a tough issue that each vegan will resolve differently. Just look at these message board vegans torn over whether vaccinations for their children are worth the suffering of animals. Most vegans get over these self-indulgent moral qualms in time to protect themselves or their offspring. But the dithering from all these mental blocks and moral hurdles can delay a vegan parent’s action just enough to kill their baby. Omnivores don’t think about this for even a second. They just take the damn medicine! 

Too bad Joel and Sergine didn’t read Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. If they had, they would have known that life-saving medical interventions derived from animal exploitation are one of the vegan exceptions. According to vegan compromisers Jenna and Bob Torres, vegans can take antibiotics if it is the only way to save their lives:

The person vacationing in Paris can void eggs and cheese, and so she should if she’s an ethical vegan, despite what [Peter] Singer says. Sure, it might be a pain, and it might mean going to an accommodating restaurant, but so what? The inconvenience is minor in the scheme of things, and if we vegans profess to care about animals, this should not be a big deal to us. Yet, let’s say the same person vacationing in Paris finds herself coming down with a nasty bacterial infection after being violently attacked by a roaming flock of free-range chickens, hell-bent on revenge. Can we reasonably expect the vacationer to avoid antibiotics that could save her life because they were tested on animals, or because there’s some gelatin in the capsule? Absolutely not, because in this situation, she has absolutely no other choice if she needs [sic] to live. Thus, the distinction between Singer’s position and our position hinges on the notion of necessity. No one needs to eat eggs and cheese when they’re on vacation in Paris, but if you get an infection that’s severe enough, you obviously have no choice but to take antibiotics, or suffer the potentially deadly consequences, even if those antibiotics contain animal products, or were tested on animals. (48)

But even if someone had passed this animal exploitation rationalization along to Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, it might not have helped. I bet they would have zapped a few monkey brains if they had known their daughter’s life was on the line. The problem is, they probably didn’t think her condition was as serious as it was. Certainly they didn’t believe that animal-tested medicine was the only way to treat their daughter. Otherwise, why rub her with cabbage pulp? From their perspective, taking their baby to the hospital for antibiotics would have been an “unnecessary” violation of their personal convictions. If they were going to subvert their ideals, it couldn’t be for a non-essential intervention all too eagerly recommended by brainwashed, pharmaceutical-happy corpse munchers. After all, exceptions to veganism are only justifiable under conditions of absolute necessity… right Bob and Jenna Torres? 

I don’t know what Jeannette Dextreit wrote about bronchitis and pneumonia treatments in her dated natural childhood book, but if she had given the Le Moaligous cause to believe that bronchitis and even pneumonia weren’t the worst disasters that could befall an infant, a lot of modern medical sources would agree. Vegans and non-vegans alike mocked Joel and Sergine Moaligou for treating their daughter’s infection with cabbage and mustard poultices, but a lot of doctors say that there’s not much you can do with bronchitis beyond treating the symptoms and waiting. 

Dr. Weil says:

Conventional physicians immediately employ antibiotics to treat bronchitis, but that is not a good idea, unless there is proof or good reason to suspect that a bacterial infection is present. 

And in the case of infants, viral and not bacterial infections are the most common. Weil’s suggested treatments include "inhalation of steam containing sage or eucalyptus," over-the-counter cough medicine and the Chinese herb astragalus. 

The Mayo Clinic agrees:

The goal of treatment for bronchitis is to relieve symptoms and ease breathing. … Bronchitis usually results from a viral infection, so antibiotics aren’t effective. However, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if he or she suspects that you have a bacterial infection. 

 KidsHealth says:

Fortunately, most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and require no specific professional treatment. Antibiotics aren’t useful because bronchiolitis is caused by a viral infection, and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. … The best treatment for most kids is time to recover and plenty of fluids. 

WebMD says:  

Treatment for acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy people usually includes taking steps to reduce cough, fever, and pain. Prescription medicines, such as antibiotics, generally are not beneficial. … Home treatment to relieve symptoms is usually all that is necessary. 

And Livestrong.org says:

Chest colds, often referred to by doctors as bronchitis or bronchiolitis, are infections of the large and small airways of the chest, respectively. They often begin as a common cold. Bronchiolitis is most common in infants, and usually resolves in a matter of days. Parents can treat most cases of bronchiolitis with home remedies; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seeing a doctor whenever a child younger than 3 months has a fever.

I don’t know if this was ever a scare in France, but here there were concerns that antibiotics were mostly useless for bronchitis, and perhaps harmful for general health, but doctors were regularly prescribing them anyway

There is a real anti-antibiotic paranoia in natural health circles, and it’s not utterly groundless. Some researchers think giving babies antibiotics before six months of age increases risk of asthma. And others believe that antibiotics in childhood could make a child more prone to Crohn’s disease.

Vegan doc John McDougall isn’t a huge antibiotics fan either:

The health of the [gut] flora can become impaired by temperature, illnesses, antibiotics and other drug treatments, and changes in our diets. The effects of antibiotic therapy can be profound and persistent, even causing a life-threatening infection with overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria (called Clostridium difficile).

Benefits of a Healthy Gut Microflora: Increase the natural resistance to infections from bacteria, yeast, and viruses; Prevent traveler’s diarrhea; Speed healing from diarrheal diseases and relapsing colitis; Improve digestion; Relieve constipation; Stimulate the immune system; Lessen symptoms of inflammatory arthritis; Suppress cancer development and growth; Reduce sex hormones; Reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.

Before birth the gastrointestinal tract of a normal fetus is sterile. During the birth process the newborn is inoculated, by passage through the birth canal, with organisms from the mother’s vagina and bowel. Benefits to the infant begin immediately with this natural defense barrier of “friendly” bacteria standing against harmful microbes that will enter later on with touching, suckling, kissing, and caressing. The importance of this early invasion should not be underestimated. This initial invasion makes a permanent impression on our immune systems, thereby affecting a person’s well-being throughout his or her life.

Everyone should encourage the growth of a healthy microflora by eating the right foods, and avoiding antibiotics, whenever possible. This means a “breast milk diet” for infants and a healthy, pure vegetarian diet (like the McDougall diet) for children and adults.

None of these bacterial advantages can help Louise now. But maybe this is why her parents were nervous about pursuing conventional medical care when antibiotics are perceived as overprescribed, possibly useless for their daughter’s condition and likely detrimental for longterm health. And let’s not forget the animals these drugs are tested on. This is exactly the sort of thing that scares natural-minded parents away from treatments that most people believe are obviously the right and only choice.

But did they really have to avoid taking Louise to the hospital at all?  

They said they were afraid the hospital would force them to compromise their personal convictions. But presumably they would have put their deeply held ethical beliefs temporarily on hold if it meant the difference between the life and death of their child. This means that even with the doctor’s warning, they apparently didn’t see the grave danger facing Louise. Perhaps they didn’t realize that infant pneumonia was so potentially deadly. If Louise had been in better shape, this might have been right. 

According to The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:

Respiratory viruses cause up to one-third of the pneumonia cases in the United States each year. These viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia in children younger than 5 years old. Most cases of viral pneumonia are mild. They get better in about 1 to 3 weeks without treatment. Some cases are more serious and may require treatment in a hospital.

WebMD says:

Pneumonia caused by a virus usually is not treated with antibiotics. Sometimes, antibiotics may be used to prevent complications. But home treatment, such as rest and taking care of your cough, usually is all that is done.

And the Mayo Clinic says:

Doctors usually treat bacterial pneumonia with antibiotics. … Antibiotics aren’t effective against most viral forms of pneumonia. And although a few viral pneumonias may be treated with antiviral medications, the recommended treatment generally is rest and plenty of fluids. … Mycoplasma pneumonias are treated with antibiotics. Even so, recovery may not be immediate. In some cases fatigue may continue long after the infection itself has cleared. Many cases of mycoplasma pneumonia go undiagnosed and untreated. The signs and symptoms mimic those of a bad chest cold, so some people never seek medical attention. The symptoms generally go away on their own. … If your pneumonia is caused by a fungus, you’ll likely be treated with antifungal medication.

Even with the fear of pneumonia, it was not entirely outrageous for them to believe that the true physical and ethical harm would be in the treatment, not the disease. This belief was incorrect and imprudent (especially in retrospect) — but not insane.  

If it had been viral pneumonia, which it usually is for children, the treatment isn’t much different than for bronchitis — symptom relief and waiting. Either way, infant pneumonia isn’t usually deadly in wealthy countries. But then most pneumatic infants in wealthy countries aren’t as nutritionally deprived as Louise was. 

But Joel and Sergine weren’t thinking their baby was nutritionally deprived. They were thinking she had to be one of the healthiest kids around. They were doing everything right. They weren’t eating animal products. They were breastfeeding her beyond six months, which is supposed to “reduce the prevalence and subsequent morbidity of respiratory illness and infection in infancy." And they weren’t poisoning her with side-effect-riddled conventional medicines and destroying her valuable gut flora. McDougall would have been so proud! If their daughter had pneumonia, which would have been hard for them to believe given that they were rearing her so perfectly, she no doubt would have had one of those mild forms that would go away without treatment.

More alarming to the Le Moaligous than the infant bronchitis and pneumonia that should have gone away with time must have been the possibility of compromising their daughter’s immune system for the rest of her life by allowing conventional doctors who know nothing about nutrition to thoughtlessly give her a needless dose of animal-exploiting antibiotics as a matter of course. From their holistic vegan perspective, hospital treatment for Louise would have been useless at best, harmful to their ethics and Louise’s longterm health at worst. They had worked so hard to make Louise a perfect, pure, natural vegan baby, and they weren’t about to let conformist, over-educated drug pushers stumble in and spoil everything. 

Now they ought to be able to see that this was sheer delusion. And the root of this delusion was believing that Louise had to be healthier than the evidence showed. This is the sort of denial that I and a lot of ex-vegans know well. 

Experiencing health failure as a vegan when you know that veganism is the best possible diet simply does not make sense. It’s almost impossible to believe it can happen, even as you’re going through it. And if it’s so easy to overlook health problems that are occurring in your own body, it can’t be that hard to gloss over someone else’s veganism-related health collapse, especially when your ideology tells you that disease is for non-vegans. 

When you’re taught that getting vitamin A the vegan way is a best bet for health… that humans produce b12 in the gut and that it takes more than 30 years to run out… that humans are herbivores… that saturated fat, animal protein and cholesterol are the worst components of food… and that there is nothing healthier than a diet of plants and only plants… how could you think that your baby nourished with the breast milk of a pure, holistic vegan could be anything other than supremely healthy? Because your conventional, biased, drug-over-prescribing, non-vegan doctor says she isn’t? 

There is also the issue of control. Vegans are very concerned with being in charge of what goes into their bodies and the bodies of their children and pets. The French video reports mentioned the fear Joel and Sergine felt at the thought of taking their child to the hospital, and a major part of that was probably loss of control.  

Vegan doctor Kerrie Saunders provides a good illustration of the vegan need to preserve control, purity and ethics, even when it means violating doctor’s orders and facing potentially dire consequences. In “Courage and Vegan Pregnancy,” Saunders begins by describing the skepticism her family and friends had to her vegan pregnancy. 

Of course, various family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances found all sorts of creative ways to ask if I planned to eat a Vegan diet throughout the pregnancy. I would calmly affirm their suspicions, being surprised at the range of reactionary facial expressions that followed. Surprise, fear, anxiety, anger, disgust, admiration, support, and it seemed every emotion in between. Was I disappointing these people? Were they worried about me? Maybe they were worried about the babies. Don’t they know that I would do anything for my babies? Don’t they know that I am doing what I feel is that absolute best for my babies, by eating a Vegan diet? How can they not understand that the Vegan diet is full of necessary nutrients, and far superior to diets with animal products? Don’t they know my breastmilk will be lower in pesticide residues because of this diet? 

The anxiety of others pushed me to study the literature more than ever. I continued forward with my commitment, confident in the nutritional recommendations for pregnancy of physicians like Michael Klaper, Neal Barnard, and John McDougall, and dietitians like Brenda Davis, Reed Mangels, and Suzanne Havala. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, she miscarried twins at six and a half months. And this is where her devotion to ethics and purity above all us could make even a Le Moaligou blush:

I lost so much blood during the miscarriage that I had almost died. The next day, I was told that I needed a blood transfusion. What?! Not after a year of preparing my body for a healthy pregnancy - no caffeine, no medications, no aspirin, no animal flesh and fluids. I could not imagine someone else’s blood being put into my body, especially when I knew I wanted to be pregnant again. I felt I owed my child more than that, and was willing to fight for my beliefs. I refused the transfusion, and signed the hospital’s legal release form. I guess I was leaving the hospital ‘against medical advice’, although one doctor whom shall remain nameless said he would have probably done the same thing. 

My Mom came home with me to help out while I was still weak and anemic. She fed me brown rice, beets, spinach, beans, and other iron-rich foods.

What, no cabbage poultices? Saunders is lucky she survived, not only because she has her life, but because vegans would have called her a veganism-tainting buffoon if she had died while trying to live up to her version of vegan principles. Instead, she is the respected author of a book called The Vegan Diet as Chronic Disease Prevention, and is helping with the “plant strong” Engine 2 Firefighter Challenge in Michigan.

No, veganism didn’t require Saunders to turn down the blood transfusion. But veganism can’t require anyone to do anything. It’s just an idea. And for Saunders, this idea compelled her to refuse blood against medical advice and put all her faith in the healing powers of plants. Because she survived, there’s no need for vegans to make a laughingstock of her. She is allowed to keep that blood transfusion story as a proud component of her vegan identity. But if she had died because of it, vegans would be saying that her refusing that blood transfusion was solely a product of her own, personal, nothing-to-do-with-veganism stupidity.

The Le Moaligous’ interpretation of their vegan principles caused them to go “against medical advice’ as well, but since it backfired in their case, there is no talk of “courage” this time. They are giving veganism a bad name and thus their association with the invincible, glorious, giant green V needs to be ridiculed away.

Vegans might want to point out that sure, that’s fine for Saunders to almost sacrifice her own life for the cause if it was so important for her, but the Le Moaligous were imposing their extreme, deprivational, anti-medicine, b12-is-in-plants vegan ethos on a baby who had no concept of morality and no choice. But if these hypothetical vegan scolds did make that argument, they would sound an awful lot like the ignorant, misguided meat eaters who criticized Saunders for imposing her extreme, deprivational moral consumption beliefs on her twin fetuses. 

But come on, what kind of imbecile would risk lives for principles related to food? Right? Well, a popular food ethicist’s bubby for one. Vegans regularly assert that their principles go out the window when death is the likely alternative, but if this is true, it makes vegans less committed than Jonathan Safran Foer’s grandmother, whose story of finding meaning through food restriction while on the run from Germans in WWII is the framing device for Foer’s Eating Animals:

"The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me."

"He saved your life."

"I didn’t eat it."

"You didn’t eat it?"

"It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork."

"Why?"

"What do you mean why?"

"What, because it wasn’t kosher?" 

"Of course."

"But not even to save your life?"

"If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save." (16-17)

Foer wants to leave us with that thought, dusting it off for the book’s very last line:

Whether I sit at the global table, with my family or with my conscience, the factory farm, for me, doesn’t mearely appear unreasonable. To accept the factory farm feels inhuman. To accept the factory farm—to feed the food it produces to my family, to support it with my money—would make me less myself, less my grandmother’s grandson, less my son’s father.

This is what my grandmother meant when she said, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” (267)

Here’s another thing Foer’s grandmother’s could have meant when she said that: “We didn’t take our daughter to the hospital because we were afraid the hospital staff would violate our personal convictions.”  

Someone needed to tell Foer’s grandma about Judaism’s pikuach nefesh exception that allows the consumption of non-Kosher food if you’re on the brink of starvation, but never mind that. Here is a seminal vegetarian text lionizing someone for her willingness to sacrifice her life for food-related convictions.

And is that so surprising? Vegans put their convictions before selfish consumption desires all the time. That is what veganism is about. It’s just that these convictions don’t directly defy immediate survival most of the time. When they do, vegans have two choices: abandon veganism and potentially suffer guilt and loss of meaning, or stick with veganism and “suffer the potentially deadly consequences.” 

As much as most vegans will say that you should choose the first option — that you should do whatever it takes to preserve yourself when it comes to that — it’s clear from the way that vegans react to ex-vegans that they don’t entirely mean this.

In Ginny Messina’s article “Do Ex-Vegans’ Stories Make the Case Against Vegan Diets?”, she criticizes ex-vegan Tasha for abandoning veganism for health reasons before doing absolutely everything she could possibly think to try within veganism. This is something that many ex-vegans get from current vegans — the standard vegan proclamation that ex-vegans “did it wrong” and should have kept trying even as they suffered. One of Tasha’s health problems as a vegan was an iron deficiency that she couldn’t fix with iron supplements. But after two months of eating red meat again, she got her iron back up to a healthy level. Was Messina happy for Tasha because when you’re facing dire health consequences, you have to do whatever it takes, even if that includes leaving veganism? Hell no! 

It’s true that the protein in meat boosts iron absorption but there are a lot of things that can be done to improve iron status on a vegan diet, and I wonder if Tasha’s pro-meat doctor explored them.

And what reason could there be to explore these unspecified “lots of things” rather than meat, when meat ended up helping Tasha? Oh right. Veganism. Personal conviction. Didn’t you realize, Tasha, that personal conviction trumps all else? The fact that Tasha now feels much better on a diet with animal products doesn’t matter. Messina doesn’t care about that. She’s too busy being upset that Tasha likes the taste of bacon. Tasha should have kept experimenting, even with her health on the line, because veganism comes first. Selfish, lazy, animal-betraying Tasha!  

But then when an infant dies because a vegan family is trying to find a solution that doesn’t violate their vegan principles, oh wait, that’s different! Why did they keep experimenting with vegan solutions when their daughter’s health was on the line?! Those self-destructive maniacs should have abandoned their deeply held principles and done whatever it took! What crazy, misinformed people who are not an indictment of veganism at all! Personal conviction doesn’t come first! Who told them that?!

Messina says the Le Maoligous put their child at risk by being “poorly informed about infant nutrition” and “distrustful of medical advice,” “allowing” their child to die, while they coincidentally “happened to be vegan.” 

They were misinformed because they weren’t supplementing b12? Perhaps you can excuse the Le Moaligous for being misinformed on that issue when T. Colin Campbell PhD, who wrote one of the most trusted books ever to have blasted animal products in favor of a plant-based diet, doesn’t believe in supplementing either. They shouldn’t have been distrustful of medical advice? Many doctors tell parents to feed their children animal products. Does Messina think vegan parents should trust that advice, since being distrustful of medical advice puts your children at risk? 

For some vegans, believing that veganism is a natural diet is necessary for them to accept it. Look again at how T. Colin Campbell struggles with the problem of b12:

I’ve asked myself why, if the health benefits of a plant-based diet are as comprehensive as contemporary research suggests - meaning that Nature did the packaging for us during our evolution and that a plant-based diet is our natural diet - then why did she leave out this one very important piece of the puzzle? 

His solution to this paradox is to believe that plant foods provide all the b12 you need, which is a solution that a lot of vegans embrace. Now, must you believe veganism is a natural diet in order to be vegan? No, absolutely not. But does a belief that veganism is a natural diet and provides all the nutrients you need without supplements have nothing to do with veganism? Please! 

Vegans conveniently lump vegan parents with dead babies into the “generally irresponsible parent” category, along with omnivores who feed their children nothing but grease squeezed from week-old Quadruple Bypass Burgers. But most vegan parents whose pure, animal-free children died were not irresponsible. In fact, vegan parents tend to be hyper-responsible in the sense that they are more obsessed with food than most. Having an unusual diet forces vegans to think about food all the time, encouraging an interest in cooking and nutrition. Of course, this nutritional information comes from pro-vegan and thus unorthodox sources. But we have no reason to assume that the Le Moaligous were sloppy, indifferent parents. They were simply principled, took veganism seriously, were blinded by vegan health collapse denial and had gaps in their nutritional knowledge.

"Aha! See? It’s nothing to do with veganism! It’s the gaps! The gaps are to blame!"

But omnivores have gaps in their nutritional knowledge too. The difference is that for omnivores, the gaps tend to be less treacherous because an omnivorous diet is more likely to accidentally cover an infant’s needs. Even though meat eaters can have b12 deficiencies too, they don’t usually have to think about b12 to make sure they’re getting enough.

The Le Moaligous weren’t derelict. They owned a health food store. They obviously cared about food and nutrition. They wanted nothing more than for Louise to be strong and healthy and live to 100, but their holistic veganism complicated and undermined their efforts. If omnivorous parents were trying that hard, would their child be suffering from a b12, albumin and vitamin A deficiency? Not likely. There is a perniciousness to the vegan version of caring about food and nutrition that often leads to worse outcomes than not caring about food or nutrition at all.

Joel and Sergine Le Moaligou were not irresponsible or crazy. They did nothing wrong except take veganism too seriously, which is exactly what vegans should say everyone do. 

Did veganism kill their child? Are you kidding me? Of course it did! Should we retrace all the steps? 

Step 1. Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou live in Paris with a healthy child, initially raised on a Standard French Diet.

Step 2. In 2000, Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou learn about factory farming. This inspires them to give up meat, putting them at odds with certain aspects of French culture.

Step 3. They take “le prochaine étape logique" and become vegans, turning their back on French food culture entirely. 

Step 4. They refashion their entire existence to fit what they now believe is a natural, more humane way of living.They take their daughter out of school, move to the country and open a health food store. This new holistic approach apparently includes not supplementing b12, but this does not appear to be a problem as they manage to stay vegan and raise their child vegan until 2008 when… 

Step 5. They have a baby, Louise, who they very holistically raise solely on breast milk, even beyond the point when standard nutritional wisdom (which they had to reject in order to become French vegans) says to introduce solid foods.

Step 6. Unbeknownst to the parents, Louise — who, based on their beliefs, should be in perfect health — becomes deficient in b12 and vitamin A, both nutrients that do not exist in unsupplemented in vegan foods and are vital for immune health and protecting against infections.

Step 7. Louise develops bronchitis. Their doctor tells Joel and Sergine to take her to a hospital for diagnosis and possibly treatment for pneumonia. They fail to do this, not out of laziness or indifference, but rather out of principle — they are afraid the hospital will subvert their personal convictions of veganism and natural living. They didn’t just reject conventional French nutritional wisdom when they went vegan, they also rejected conventional French medicine; in order to keep their baby pure, healthy and vegan, they treat her at home with holistic methods.

Step 8. She dies.

At exactly what point did veganism somehow unlink from this chain of events? A few seconds before step eight? 

Saying that veganism did not kill Louise Le Moaligou is like saying Christian Science has nothing to do with the death of a sick child whose parents withheld medicine because they were praying for a cure. Yes, it’s bad parenting, but bad parenting that is a product of ideology rather than a lack of caring.  

"It wasn’t veganism that killed their baby — it was the parents’ fault for taking veganism so damn seriously!" 

Sure. I’m not saying that veganism personified materialized and strangled this child. Veganism is a concept. Fascism and communism didn’t personally kill anyone in the 20th century, because a mere idea can’t kill anything. An idea doesn’t have sharp edges. It’s what humans do with the idea that either constructs or destructs. That’s why the line “Communism was a great idea… until humans got involved!” is so silly. An idea without humans involved is nothing at all. Veganism is simply an abstraction that affects the lives of its adherents and those around them in different ways. And the way the Le Moaligous interpreted veganism and incorporated it into their lives killed their child. Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou watching slaughterhouse footage and becoming vegans = dead Louise. Linking to the VeganHealth.org page of healthy vegan babies and the ADA’s position paper on a vegetarian diet doesn’t prove otherwise.

Veganism does not kill every baby it touches, not even close, but it does kill some. Veganism doesn’t make all vegans homeless either, but veganism sure made Dave Warwak homeless. Hey, veganism’s not all bad. It got Isa Moskowitz a cookbook writing career.

So did veganism have to kill Louise? No. They could have been less strict vegans. They could have recognized that veganism is not a natural diet and taken b12. They could have rationalized their use of medicines tested on animals because it was an emergency. But just because they didn’t do these things doesn’t mean vegans can excuse Louise’s death as unrelated to veganism.

Here’s the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism: “A way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.” There’s nothing in there about b12 pills or bringing your baby to the hospital for non-vegan treatment for what you don’t believe is a deadly illness. What constitutes “possible and practical” is left up to the adherents. Which is why there is so much neurotic bickering on vegan message boards.

Veganism will not wreck every family the way it wrecked the Le Moaligou family. But if Joel and Sergine Le Moaligou had never seen that slaughterhouse footage, they could be eating foie gras and taking their baby to the doctor after every little wheeze just like modern, civilized French parents are supposed to. 

We all interact with ideas in different ways, and sometimes the interactions are detrimental, even if devotees of the idea don’t want to admit their cherished concept could ever lead to a single negative outcome. Communism didn’t kill anyone in the Soviet Union… that was fake communism! Stalin did it wrong!  

Sometimes veganism makes you nicer, and sometimes veganism makes you an intolerant jerk. Veganism helps some people get their lives together, and for others it becomes a form of self destruction. Some vegans lose weight, some lose their minds.

I’d love to hear vegans say that Joel and Sergine Le Moaligou should never have become vegan. Can they do it? Can they admit that some people are better off not vegan?

Nah. Veganism is for everyone.