The medical and legal system in the United Kingdom are teaming up to intervene in the life of an ill baby boy, usurping his parent's right to make decisions about his fate — and the U.S. may not be far behind on this issue.
Charlie Gard was born last August with a rare disease, mitochondrial depletion syndrome, which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage. After determining his condition would not improve, medical staff at the hospital where he's being treated believed it was best for Charlie if they removed life support. His parents did not agree, so the case went to a judge, who ruled with the hospital's recommendation. Though Charlie's parents appealed this decision, they lost that appeal a few days ago.
Charlie's parents not only wanted to keep him alive but objected to this measure because they would like to see if their son could receive experimental treatment in the United States. In fact, the couple has raised more than $1.3 million via GoFundMe to come to the U.S. and commence said treatment. The judge determined, after speaking with the unnamed U.S. doctor and medical staff at the hospital where Charlie is being treated, Charlie's health would never improve.
The judge said in the summary released to the media a few weeks ago: "It is with the heaviest of hearts, but with complete conviction for Charlie's best interests, that I find it is in Charlie's best interests that I accede to these applications and rule that GOSH [Great Ormond Street Hospital] may lawfully withdraw all treatment save for palliative care to permit Charlie to die with dignity."
Charlie's mother, of course, had a different view. In court she asked he be "given the chance" to try the treatment here in the U.S. "If I thought for a moment that Charlie was in pain or suffering I would not fight for that life to be extended."
As extraordinary as this case seems, it's well within British legal precedent for the state to believe it usurps parental rights, particularly with socialized medicine setting the framework for this issue.
Even in England, though, this case still seems like a nightmare scenario for Charlie's parents and parental rights. Though their rights are being trampled on and the judge himself seems fully aware of this issue, he admits that according to British law the state can overrule parents if the "child's best interest" is at stake: "Some people may ask why the court has any function in this process; why can the parents not make this decision on their own? The answer is that, although the parents have parental responsibility, overriding control is vested in the court exercising its independent and objective judgment in the child's best interests."
Translation: Although you're Charlie's parents, you don't know what's best, the government does. This is an extremely pompous assertion at best and, at least to conservatives in the U.S., a slippery slope at worst. Yet this is not uncommon due to the way British law is written, as evidenced in this landmark case in 2002.
Sadly, the U.S. is not far behind our U.K. allies when it comes to parental rights.
In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court held that the government "has broad authority to regulate the actions and treatment of children" and that "parental authority is not absolute and can be permissibly restricted if doing so is in the interests of a child's welfare." Though the court's decision made clear their ruling in Prince was based on specific facts and wasn't supposed to be a landmark case for state intervention when a child's health was at stake, it set a precedent.
Though there's little the U.S. can do to intervene in the case of Charlie Gard, the U.K.'s cultural norms seem to drift this way eventually. It's important to keep a watchful eye out for legal and societal issues there that could ultimately influence parental rights here.
Nicole Russell is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist in Washington, D.C., who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator's Young Journalist Award.
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