The Corner


Charlie Gard’s Parents Assert Their Parental Rights but More Than That

In response to Rush Limbaugh’s Advice to Team Obama

Bambino Gesù has offered to care for Charlie Gard. A children’s hospital renowned across Europe, Bambino Gesù (Baby Jesus) is operated by the Holy See and located about half a mile south of the main entrance to Saint Peter’s Square.

That is the Catholic Church the world had come to expect.

Last week the Pontifical Academy for Life surprised and angered many people when it implied that Charlie’s parents should let go and let him die. Then on Sunday, to the joy of those who take a different view of the matter, the director of the Holy See press office issued this contrary statement:

The Holy Father follows with affection and emotion the situation of Charlie Gard, and expresses his own closeness to his parents. He prays for them, wishing that their desire to accompany and care for their own child to the end will be respected.

The outreach by Bambino Gesù on Monday, via Twitter, reinforced the pope’s message. The hospital added its own warm words to his but, more important, also extended a professional helping hand.

Now the president of Bambino Gesù reports that Charlie’s doctors in the U.K. won’t let his parents move him from his intensive-care unit in London. If they prevail, his parents will be left to watch their infant son die as his doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children withdraw his life support.

Charlie Gard’s cause combines two large political causes, parental rights and the right to life. They comport in this instance, but they don’t comport always or necessarily.

Parents can and sometimes do choose for their severely diseased newborn children outcomes that pro-life advocates think are wrong. Pro-choice advocates routinely insinuate and sometimes explicitly invoke the parental rights of women seeking abortion. Over the years, parental rights have been integral to arguments for abortion rights.

Pro-lifers are correct to call out double standards, as in this case. If parental rights are said to be sacrosanct when parents want to end the life of their child but not when they fight to preserve it, the principle is not really parental rights, is it?

Chris Gard and Connie Yates have privately raised funds to cover the cost of experimental treatment for Charlie in America, and it is reported that a U.S. hospital has offered to treat him for free, so containment of cost to the British taxpayer is not in any direct sense the rationale for the intransigence of the British doctors in this case. Wesley Smith is right, however, that their attempt to frustrate these two parents in their quest to save the life of their child aligns with a broader, general campaign to discourage medical care when it is calculated, in cold terms, that the resulting extension or quality of life will probably be too short or too low to justify the expense.

Life is expensive, as we are reminded every time we join the debate about the latest national health-care proposal. To be pro-life is to take the strongest possible stand for life against even the most compelling economic arguments on the other side. It is cheaper certainly in the near term to abort a child who for the next decade or two would be a net drain on his parents’ resources of time and money. And always is it cheaper to hasten the death of the frail and elderly who will never again be net contributors to the material well-being of either their family or society.

It would have been easier for Chris Gard and Connie Yates not to buck the system. The course they have taken — damn the hassle, damn the cost — implies an extraordinary value that they put on life itself. The Catholic Church is the global institution most famous for honoring life itself against strong social and political pressures to abandon that principle, and so the gestures by Pope Francis and Bambino Gesù have been reassuring.

“It was a Catholic hospital and so of course they wouldn’t let him die,” a friend once said to me in the course of narrating the end-of-life agonies of a longtime colleague. She meant to be snide but unwittingly paid the Church what in its books counts as a compliment.

What unites the two main strands — opposition to abortion and opposition to euthanasia — of the pro-life movement is not a question of rights, as I explain in this blog post at The Human Life Review. Pro-lifers can invoke the right to life when defending unborn children, but rights talk is hardly the ticket for answering the movement for physician-assisted suicide and a right to die.

Ultimately the pro-life cause rests on a sentiment. If it can be reduced to a linear argument, I haven’t seen it. Charlie Gard’s parents are heroic not for insisting on “reasonable” (whatever that would be in this case) medical treatment for their child. They are extraordinary because against such enormous odds they have set out to preserve the flame of life still flickering in his fragile, tiny frame. We rightly cheer them for asserting their parental rights against the overreach of the medical establishment and the state. They do not, however, assert those rights as an end in itself. In their view, apparently, as in mine (and yours?), the end in itself is life itself.