Aggressive Medical Treatment in the Case of Charlie Gard

The heartwrenching situation of the European judicial system determining the fate of Charlie Gard has captured international attention and a petition has been launched for his parents to exercise their right to make medical decisions for their son. It is a shame this abuse of judicial power receives less attention than the media’s fixation on political opponents. Calls have flooded the Vatican asking the Pope to intervene and the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement two days. The statement is disappointing, to say the least, and one writer notes that it is frightening that the Catholic Church is not taking a firmer stance for Charlie’s life.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, reiterates parts of a statement made by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales that we can never deliberately intend to end a human life and we must recognize the limits of modern medicine. This type of reasoning is common in academia where two positions are held in what is called “dialectical tension.” Most scholars try to maintain the tension by not choosing one side over the other to provide a more accurate and overall picture of a situation.1 However, oftentimes this methodology is employed merely as a smokescreen so that a scholar can appear to be balanced and open to multiple viewpoints when one position is correct or when there is no tension at all. In the case of Charlie Gard, there is no tension between not intending to end his life and the limits of medical treatments. To choose an extreme medical procedure does not violate the limits of medical treatments. In fact, it sometimes helps to expand those limits.

In the case of Charlie Gard, there is no tension between not intending to end his life and the limits of medical treatments. It is a fact that Charlie Gard’s chance of survival is very slight and his parents have the right in accord with Catholic moral theology to forgo extraordinary treatments in London that will not improve Charlie’s life or only prolong his suffering. A patient, or the parents in this case, also has the right to seek out extraordinary medical treatments in hope to improve their quality of life no matter how small the chance of success. It is well known that the experimental treatment Charlie could receive may not yield a different outcome but there is a chance he could be healed. The limits of modern medicine are not violated by seeking an experimental treatment. Archbishop Paglia’s employment of dialectical tension does not accurately frame the situation, or its so-called “complexity,” accurately.

The third and last paragraph from the Pontifical Academy of Life’s statement is the most surprising. The statement maintains the false tension saying that the parents’ wishes must be heard and the parents have to be helped to “understand the unique difficulty of the situation.” This dialectical tension appears as though the Archbishop is taking a holistic approach to the issue but there is no tension. What is most shocking is the misuse of Evangelium Vitae 65. Archbishop Paglia states that Evangelium Vitae 65 teaches the, “avoid[ance of] aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or the family.” This is not true. Evangelium Vitae 65 discusses the issue of euthanasia and its relation to “aggressive medical procedures.” The passage in question states,

Euthanasia must be distinguished from the decision to forego so-called “aggressive medical treatment”, in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience “refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted”. Certainly there is a moral obligation to care for oneself and to allow oneself to be cared for, but this duty must take account of concrete circumstances. It needs to be determined whether the means of treatment available are objectively proportionate to the prospects for improvement. To forego extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.

The late pope has taught that a patient can refuse “aggressive medical treatment” in good conscience and not that a patient must not be restricted from accessing such treatment. The pope’s primary point in this paragraph is that euthanasia is not equivalent to forgoing extraordinary medical care. It is a gross misrepresentation of this teaching to say we must avoid these types of treatments. It is a tragedy for the State to determine how a child should die against the wishes of the child’s parents and it is a shame that Charlie Gard and his parents are not yet received strong support from the Vatican.2

  1. Maintaining or listening to all viewpoints as equally valid resembles the new structure of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which now includes pro-abortion theologian Nigel Biggar. Edward Pentin, “Pro-Abortion Theologian Picked as Pontifical Academy for Life Member,” National Catholic Register, June 13, 2017, The Academy also includes Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg and Fr Maurizio Chiodi who believe abortion and contraception are permissible in certain circumstances. “New members of Vatican pro-life academy have defended abortion and contraception,” Catholic Herald, June 16, 2017,
  2. Ian Tuttle, “The Court-Ordered Killing of Charlie Gard,” National Review, June 29, 2017, It is possible Pope Francis tweeted a corrective viewpoint. Ed Morissey, “Hmmm: Did the Pope Rebuke the Vatican Academy for Life on Charlie Gard Statement?” Hot Air, June 30, 2017,

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