On Charlie Gard (a reply to Matt Loftus)


You’re always worth reading, and your perspective on the difference between allowing the “arc of life” to complete vs causing death is helpful. I absolutely agree with you that we ought never torture dying people. I also agree that in cases where death is clearly imminent, the moral dimensions of allowing it in vs taking extraordinary measures to keep it out are more complex than Tweets allow. Charlie Gard’s suffering is horrible, and, as Christians, we believe that the last enemy to be defeated is death. It does not have the last word, and we must not behave as if it does.

But I think you and Alastair Roberts are missing something…or perhaps simply not taking it seriously enough. Both you and Alastair readily agree that something is amiss when the state usurps the role of parents as it certainly seems to have done in the Gard case. But you both seem to think this is a minor concession that doesn’t really affect the moral dimension of the life and death situation here. What I’m hearing from you and Alastair amounts to something like, “Well, of course the courts are wrong in telling Charlie’s parents what they can and cannot do for their child with their money. But Charlie’s parents are probably wrong to want experimental treatment, and actually, that’s a bigger deal than what the European courts are doing.”

I believe this attitude is profoundly wrong, and I’ll offer two reasons:

–You write, “Honoring human dignity means helping someone along on the trajectory of their life, not trying to straighten it out for as long as we can.” This is a defensible statement, but in this instance, it has a serious ambiguity: Who is the “we” in this sentence? Is it a reference to parents? Doctors? Fellow taxpayers? Churches? The common welfare?

This ambiguity matters precisely because different people have different immediate moral obligations to cases like Charlie Gard’s. Charlie’s parents indisputably feel a moral obligation to do everything within their power to save their son. By what authority do we as observers, or (more pertinently) governments and courts, stand over such instinct and pass a judgment on it? Charlie Gard does not belong to you or me the same way he belongs to his mother and father. He does not belong to Europe or the United Kingdom the same way he belongs to Mom and Dad. What is the moral obligation of the community in this case if it isn’t to serve Charlie’s parents as they try to save their child?

You might respond, “Experimental treatments are objectively torture, and even if the parents want them, allowing them would be an injustice on Charlie.” That’s a coherent moral argument. The problem, as I’m sure you agree, is that it’s an extreme one. Very few people would agree that all experimental treatments are inherently wrong to administer.

So then, the question becomes how can we discern if this experimental treatment is good for Charlie Gard or not? The answer is that “WE” cannot determine that. Charlie’s parents can. Doctors who would administer such a test can make a judgment and follow their conscience. But as we go further and further from the inner circle–Charlie’s parents at the middle, the doctors nearby–we also go into different moral terrain. Establishing this kind of triage of relational, moral authority is not some sort of Western model of “autonomy” that separates familial units from their communities. By wise design, God ordained that parents would be physically and emotionally present with their children in a way that no other person or institution could ever be. To honor the wishes of Charlie’s parents in this case IS in fact a positive moral obligation, one that the court systems of Europe have failed to their shame.

-You write, “Honoring human dignity means allowing each person to follow their trajectory as closely as possible, using medical technology to keep people from falling off the arc prematurely.” I think this is mostly correct, but with one big caveat: We don’t actually know a person’s “trajectory” until they’ve died. Downward spirals stop. Cancer goes mysteriously into remission. Physical healing that goes beyond the explanatory bounds of biology happens, and it happens often enough to make me wonder whether speaking of a person’s life “trajectory” is actually all that useful in the moments we would most need to know it.

You’ve made in the past a compelling Christian case for state-sponsored healthcare for all. For that reason, your argument here surprises me. The point of single payer healthcare, if I understand yours and others’ arguments correctly, is giving everyone access to improve their life trajectory regardless of their income. I’m not sure you can have this cake and eat it too. If Americans have a positive moral obligation to not withhold insurance to those whose life-trajectories are pointing downward, it seems self-evidently true that we ought not withhold medical treatment to the same–and, by extension, we ought not withhold the very capacity to choose treatments. If Charlie has a God-given right to insurance even if his body is failing, why does he not have a right to the treatment such insurance can purchase?

Your call to nuance amidst outrage is perceptive and helpful. But in the case of Charlie Gard, I think the outrage is justified. Letting the admittedly real complexities of medical ethics obscure the very serious action of the state in this case–and the obvious precedents such action establishes–is a mistake that pro-life, pro-dignity people cannot afford to make.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.