The Disturbing Case of Charlie Gard

The case of Charlie Gard, the infant son of Chris Gard and Connie Yates of England who suffers from a congenital mitochondrial disorder, has dominated the news cycle for the last couple of week. On June 27, the European Court of Human Rights announced their ruling that the Great Ormand Street Hospital in London could remove Charlie from life support. Their decision was made in spite of the fact that doctors in the United States have offered experimental treatment for Charlie that, while not able to cure him, could alleviate much of the devastating effects of his condition in hopes of improving the quality of his life, and the fact that Charlie’s parents have the money to pay for this experimental treatment.

After a disappointing statement from the Vatican’s Academy for Life, which many regarded as too supportive of the Court’s decision and lacking in support of Charlie’s parent’s rights to provide care for their child, Pope Francis issued a statement clearly in support of the rights of Charlie’s parents.

The prospects for Charlie’s improvement are not the central issue here. No one is pretending that Charlie can be cured. No one is pretending that his life is going to be long or normal. The concern here is that the courts are presuming to know what’s best for a child against the judgment of his parents and to assume authority over the care of a child against the wishes of his parents, who have committed no crime or have been accused of no neglect or abuse of their son. Quite the contrary, they are adamant in their desire to give their son every chance he can to live and to live the highest quality of life possible.

In recent years, courts and legislatures have trampled on parental rights, including the right of parents to make decision regarding their child’s health. This includes in the United States.

In Washington state, Ballard High School in Seattle facilitated a 15-year-old student in procuring an abortion without her mother’s knowledge. This was consistent with state law, which says that, “Minors may receive an abortion and abortion-related services at any age without the consent of a parent, guardian or the father of the child.”

According to, schools are not required to receive parental consent for treating children in the on campus clinic, or to even notify parents of treatment their child has received. As in the case of Washington, in some states this even includes procuring an abortion.

In Alabama, the parents of children as young as 14 can be denied access to the medical records of their children. In Minnesota, there is no minimum age of children for which access to medical records can be denied to parents. These are especially true in areas of sexuality and reproduction. I recall when working in the Emergency Department at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis that we were not allowed to inform parents if their daughter had a positive pregnancy test. Even more disturbing than parents being denied access to medical records, children in many states have the authority to consent to medical procedures without their parent’s consent or knowledge including, in some states, abortion and procedures recommended in non-life-threatening circumstances, as well as vaccinations. We all want a hospital to do what must be done to save the life of our child in the event of life-threatening emergencies, even if we cannot be contacted. But, to presume to perform non-emergent procedures on our children without our consent is to presume too much. It is especially disconcerting to presume that a child is capable of understanding a procedure sufficiently enough to provide meaningful consent. Giving consent, remember, isn’t simply agreeing to have the procedure done. It means you have an understanding of the procedure, the reason for the procedure, and possible adverse outcomes of having the procedure vs. not having the procedure. Is a fourteen year old really capable of this? A twelve year old? A ten year old?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that parents have a responsibility to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of their children. It also makes clear that, while society must help and support parents in fulfilling their duties to their children, doing so includes acknowledging the “true nature of marriage and family,” which includes the priority of parents in the lives of their children. Society must also be careful never to “usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.”

2209  The family must be helped and defended by appropriate social measures. Where families cannot fulfill their responsibilities, other social bodies have the duty of helping them and of supporting the institution of the family. Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.

2210  The importance of the family for the life and well-being of society entails a particular responsibility for society to support and strengthen marriage and the family. Civil authority should consider it a grave duty ‘to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality, and promote domestic prosperity.’

2228  Parents’ respect and affection are expressed by the care and attention they devote to bringing up their young children and providing for their physical and spiritual needs. As the children grow up, the same respect and devotion lead parents to educate them in the right use of their reason and freedom.” [emphasis in original]

I’m not sure what would constitute a greater usurpation of a family’s prerogatives or a greater interference in a family’s life than a court deciding that parents are to be prevented from providing their child with legitimate medical care under the supervision of licensed medical professionals because, in the court’s mind, such is not in the best interest of the child. Why does the court get to decide this?

If the case of Charlie Gard concerns you, as well as the other examples of governments infringing on the responsibilities and rights of parents, you can contact and sign up to receive regular updates and recommendations for action.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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