- Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law
When do religious practices and choices shift from laudable expressions of cultural pluralism to the justified object of state suspicion, scrutiny, and rejection? Lori Beaman’s most recent book, Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law, broaches this question, inviting us to engage in a reflection of the place—and tolerated scope—of faith, spiritualism, and community-based normativity within Canadian multiculturalism. Beaman’s own exploration of this question occurs through an excavation of interdisciplinary texts wrestling with the contours of “acceptable” diversity. Her main source, however, is the case of B.H. v. Alberta (Director of Child Welfare), decided by the Alberta Courts in 2002.1 B.H. offers us the judiciary’s take on the story of Bethany Hughes, a 16-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who refused blood transfusions as part of her course of treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia. From a juridical perspective, B.H. is a straightforward case that does not raise particularly intricate issues. At the same time, it is a brilliant prism for illuminating the values and assumptions that course through the rhetoric on religion across disciplines and domains of knowledge. More specifically, the various professional “truths” offered at Bethany’s bedside reveal an embedded monistic appreciation of what it means to be a “good” believer and citizen that shuns any possibility of dignified diversity and resistance.
One of Beaman’s remarkable strengths as a scholar is her ability to weave together apparently disparate ideas and texts to pursue a compelling and original line of inquiry. Following her along this trajectory, the reader ultimately [End Page 130] gains an enriched perspective on the interrelationship of law, culture, and religion. Defining Harm bears these hallmark traits, crystallizing how these conceptual strands converge in the notion of “harm.” Beaman’s exploration of law’s uncritical acceptance of “harm” as a touchstone for judging the habits, practices, and ethos of the “other” unearths formal law’s true identity as a culture and system of beliefs unto itself.
Defining Harm is deliberately interdisciplinary. While its focus is on legal judgment, scholars from all fields within the arts and humanities will find this text engaging and accessible, particularly those of us who are pulled to legal and social discourse on notions of faith, family, and community. Medical practitioners also would enjoy reading—and would do well to read—this book, given its call for introspection and scrutiny with respect to “right” answers and outcomes in encounters with bioethical dilemmas.
While this book is generally meticulously researched, certain overlooked authorities would have enriched its analysis of judicial approaches to religiosity in the context of medical decision making. Beaman’s argument that Bethany Hughes’s status as a minor was not pivotal to the B.H. judgment could have been nuanced and bolstered by a discussion of Malette v. Shulman,2 in which the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a competent adult’s right to refuse “medically necessary” treatment on religious grounds. While the outcomes in the two cases look different, a careful consideration of their circumstances would reveal whether this difference is attributable solely to the age of each story’s protagonist. Moreover, exploring Re Dueck3 and Protection de la Jeunesse—8844 would have nourished a central critique of this book, exposing how such cases—like B.H.—can afford legal actors an opportunity to comment and pass judgement on entire communities and on choices by parents that are viewed as unacceptably conservative, fundamentalist, or coopted by faith.
Beaman is to be commended for her critical stance on “harm” as an objective barometer for assessing the propriety of religious behaviour and decisions. Although even the Supreme Court of Canada has accepted harm as the proper threshold for assessing whether religious decisions affecting children warrant legal interference, Beaman’s work peels away the ostensibly neutral veneer of this concept, revealing how its invocation can easily normalize and defuse morally controversial legal decisions. In this lies Defining Harm’s main contribution. Unfortunately, though, Beaman...