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Charlie Gard and the Culture of Death

The recent case of Charlie Gard, a British boy suffering from Mitochondrial DNA Depletion Syndrome (a terminal genetic disease), has sparked worldwide discussion. The discussion has centered on the value of human life, the permissibility of discontinuing medical treatment, and the rights of parents to make decisions about the best interest of their child.

Charlie, whose disease is known to cause progressive muscle weakness and brain damage, was admitted to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. The hospital’s motto is: “The child first and always.” But when his parents wanted to send Charlie to an American specialist for promising experimental treatment, the hospital refused to release the boy. 

The judiciary supported the hospital’s refusal, citing Charlie’s right to “die with dignity.” The High Court judge ruling claimed it was in Charlie’s “best interests” to die. Charlie’s mother lamented that so much time was wasted in the drawn-out lawsuit: “Had Charlie been given the [promising experimental] treatment sooner he would have had the potential to be a normal, healthy little boy.” Charlie died shortly before his first birthday.

Symptomatic of our time

The fact that both medical and legal professionals were so adamant in refusing Charlie the treatment that could have prolonged his life, is symptomatic of what Pope John Paul II characterized as a “culture of death.” Of particular interest is the reflection that “the point has been reached where the most basic care, even nourishment, is denied to babies born with serious handicaps or illnesses”—which the pope view as a form of infanticide.

In his "Evangelium Vitae" (1995), addressed to “the people of life and for life,” the pope warned against modern trends that undermine the dignity of human life. The fact that practices like abortion and euthanasia have become sanctioned by law in many Western countries, he wrote, is “both a disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline.” Abortion and euthanasia are not separate phenomena, but elements of a culture of death that has emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Pope John Paul II recognized that the causes of the culture of death were various and complex. Nevertheless, the pope did see evidence of a what he referred to as a “conspiracy against life,” plotting as it were to overturn the Judeo-Christian belief in humans’ inviolable right to life. As bioethicist Peter Singer, one of the contemporary architects of this conspiracy, triumphantly declared in Rethinking Life and Death (1994): “After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed.”

The collapse of the traditional Western ethic

Behind this collapse, the pope identified an “eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism.” Those who have lost sight of God's will inevitably lose sight of the human's true nature as created in the image of God. And this “leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism.” As a consequence of such ideas, humans are reduced to biological machines. In John Paul II words: “to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency.”

According to Singer, the “notion that human life is sacred just because it’s human is medieval.” For those who no longer believe that humans are special among the species, it is merely the ability to enjoy and suffer that really matters—something humans have in common with non-human animals. In other words, the traditional “sanctity-of-life” ethic has been replaced by a modern “quality-of-life” ethic.

We are now better equipped to understand the High Court judge, when he claimed that it was in Charlie’s best interests to die. After all, his quality of life was not very high; his life was not worth living and, like a sick animal, he should be put out of his misery. In similar instances of “life that has begun very badly,” such as babies born with Downs syndrome, Singer advocates in Practical Ethics (1979) the right of parents to kill their children up to 28 days after birth.

Although our present situation might seem bleak, one should not give up hope. As a countermeasure to the culture of death, Pope John Paul II encouraged his readers to work for the establishment of a “culture of life,” and to “contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good.” And how can one look at the worldwide outpouring of love and concern for Charlie Gard as anything else than evidence for such a contribution?

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