The Charlie Gard Case Portends a Frightening Future

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A woman walks past a banner left by supporters of Charlie Gard's family opposite Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London, Britain, July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Stephen M. Krason, Crisis Magazine, July 31, 2017

Stephen M. KrasonThe case of Charlie Gard, the British baby afflicted with the rare mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome who a London hospital would not discharge to his parents so they could take him to the U.S. for experimental treatment, brought together a number of increasingly portentous trends and realities that have come to define our age.

The first obvious reality is the advancement of the euthanasia/“quality of life” mindset. The medical staff and administrators of the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London apparently decided somewhere along the way that baby Charlie’s case was hopeless and it would be better if he were just allowed to die. It was not a medically indisputable position, not only because such conclusions are hardly infallible and in fact often enough turn out to be erroneous, but because they apparently were unaware of or cavalierly dismissive of the new experimental treatment options. In the end, the medical window of opportunity to pursue those options closed and Charlie went downhill—seemingly because the hospital pursued a lengthy legal battle to oppose the parents’ wish to allow him to avail himself of those treatments that reputable medical experts and facilities in the U.S. were offering him. It looks like Charlie was a victim of being categorized as “unworthy of living” on the grounds of disability. Anyone who follows the euthanasia developments in Western Europe and even North America knows how much this attitude, advanced by pro-euthanasia ideologues, has taken hold. He also should recall how it first was applied to the disabled in Weimar Germany and, of course, advanced from disability to the further “categorizations” of people unworthy of life under the Nazis.

The second reality is the substantial suppression of parental rights. This isn’t surprising in an age when we see the state increasingly substituting its preferences for those of parents not just in education but even basic childrearing practices. The Charlie Gard case, after all, happened in the U.K., one of whose constituent parts, Scotland, pushed a few years ago to assign a social worker to every child at birth to second-guess his parents. The mentality in Western countries—we see it massively in the U.S.—that views every parent as a potential child abuser, permits child protective system (CPS) type agencies to intervene with abandon into innocent families on the basis of false abuse and neglect claims, and thinks that the state knows more about how to rear children than their parents, apparently now will use the full force of the law to exclude parents from trying to provide proper medical care for their children even on life-and-death matters.

Charlie Gard type cases don’t happen just in the U.K. Recall the Justina Pelletier case where Boston Children’s Hospital refused to allow her parents to get the care for her that she needed because its staff didn’t agree with the (correct) diagnosis of her problem by other competent medical professionals. In both these cases—and others, that have come to be called “medical kidnapping”—we witnessed the shocking scenario of young patients effectively being held as prisoners in medical facilities, which refused to respect the right of their legal caretakers to take them elsewhere for the treatment they needed.

Both the Gard and Pelletier cases—in countries an ocean away from each other—illustrate even more deeply the “closed system” of child protection—not just the lack of appropriate judicial oversight of agencies and institutions supposedly directed to child welfare, but the almost reflexive deference of judges to them. As legal scholars like Professor Paul Chill of the University of Connecticut have written, the playing field is decisively tilted against parents when facing off against the CPS in juvenile courts in the U.S. The Pelletier case strikingly demonstrated that as the juvenile court, at the behest of the hospital, readily transferred custody of Justina from her parents to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

What these cases illustrate more broadly is the reality of runaway judicial power, which we are certainly familiar with in the U.S. with a Supreme Court that for decades seems to have identified the Constitution with its own decisions—irrespective of legal and constitutional tradition and history. While that problem has not been as serious in the U.K., the Charlie Gard case brings it into full force, as judges there—supposedly governed by the common law—obviously think they can dispense with parental rights that were viewed as basic under common law.

Another obvious contemporary trend illustrated by the Charlie Gard case—and the Pelletier case before it—is the increasing arrogance, ultra-paternalism, and—most disturbingly—authoritarianism of the elite of functional experts in the West. Not only do we witness the substitution of an ethic of service with one of control, but a blatant unwillingness to acknowledge error. In both cases, the medical authorities involved bungled diagnoses and decisions. It was even worse that they refused to acknowledge it and correct themselves, even when other, probably more competent experts thought otherwise. Worse still, however, were their authoritarian actions—fully backed up, or in the Pelletier case, participated in—by the state in virtually incarcerating their young patients and refusing them the care they needed and their parents the opportunity to help them. They deprived their patients not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Both were not permitted to have the emotional support and succor of their families at home—the hospital would not even allow Charlie Gard to go home to spend his last days with his parents—or their spiritual good taken care of. The Catholic teenager Justina Pelletier was not allowed to attend Mass or receive the sacraments and the Great Ormond Street Hospital wouldn’t allow a noted minister from the U.S. to pray, with the parents’ permission, over Charlie Gard in his hospital room. They cited a “security” issue—by which they probably meant that they didn’t want the minister, known as a religious freedom activist, to have more of an opening to publicly criticize them. Wesley Smith, the American medical ethics expert, recently said that the authoritarian actions of Great Ormond were unprecedented in medical annals.

The extent of the elite arrogance in the Charlie Gard case was seen in the fact that the hospital authorities were so confident that they would prevail—bolstered by U.K. courts and the European Court of Human Rights both giving them a pass—that they didn’t even seem deterred by the bad PR they were facing.

Yet another current reality shown by the Charlie Gard case is the tepidness of political executives in standing up to the overreaching of courts. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May expressed sympathy for Charlie’s parents’ plight, but indicated it was a judicial matter. Later, it seemed as if she thought the bigger victim was the hospital because of the public hostility directed toward it because of the case. One thinks also here of Governor Jeb Bush in Florida, who in the face of the outrageous actions of Judge George Greer in allowing Terri Schiavo’s husband—who had abandoned her and taken up with another woman—to make the decision to allow her starvation, was apparently unwilling even to consider circumventing Greer to save her. It’s very clear that the norm for political executives nowadays is just to allow, without even a whimper, political authority to pass into the hands of judges and bureaucrats—in some sense, in the U.K.’s socialized health care system, the hospital was an extension of the government bureaucracy—even when the lives of their constituents are at stake. Charlie Gard, Terri Schiavo, and Justina Pelletier could have all been spared what happened to them if the different political executives had acted aggressively to block the courts and to uphold traditional legal norms that the supposed guardians of the law—the judges—were thwarting.

If we are to talk about the law, wouldn’t the appropriate response in the Charlie Gard case be criminal indictments against the hospital authorities for kidnapping and the British equivalent of child endangerment and, since their delay perhaps made it impossible to seek the care in the U.S. that might have given Charlie a chance, manslaughter? Of course, it won’t happen. If the parents had delayed seeking care for Charlie, though, you can be sure the British criminal justice system would have made them the example of examples.

If anything positive comes out of the Charlie Gard case, it might be that it will make the publics in Western countries more attuned to these realities and dangers of an overbearing elite, an advancing pro-euthanasia mindset, and the gross subversion of parental rights and find their voice in resisting them and start demanding that their elected officials to do something about them.



Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His next book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (forthcoming this fall from Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

(Photo credit: REUTERS / Peter Nicholls)