In British Baby’s Case, Catholic Views Aren’t So Clear-Cut


“My sense is that Pope Francis first objects to the state usurping the role of the parents to determine their child’s best interests,” O. Carter Snead, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and the director of its Center for Ethics and Culture, said in an email. “Pope Francis believes, along with Charlie’s parents, that his life — all life — is worth fighting for, regardless of the presence of disability.”

But John M. Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, who has counseled dozens of Catholic parents with children suffering from incurable diseases or on life support, said the church teaching was clear that it was not morally necessary to provide life-sustaining treatment if there was no hope of improvement.

“The poor child is suffering from an incurable genetic disorder that can’t be cured, so there is no question that there is no moral obligation to continue intervention, according to Catholic teaching,” Mr. Haas said in a phone interview. “On the other hand, that doesn’t mean there is a moral obligation to stop life support.”

He added: “It happens not infrequently when loved ones can’t let go and continue overzealous interventions. I don’t understand why the court won’t allow the parents to take home the child to die.”

Photo

Charlie Gard, who is 11 months old, with his parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

Credit
Family of Charlie Gard, via Associated Press

The London hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital, has declined to do that, for reasons it has not explained.

The Bambino Gesù pediatric hospital in Rome, which is run by the Vatican, has offered to care for the child, who is 11 months old, though it is not clear that it could do anything beyond keeping him on life support. Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, reiterated that offer on Wednesday in a call with Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

Robert D. Truog, a pediatric intensive care physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, said he was troubled by the offer. In his decades of experience dealing with priests, rabbis and imams advising families in the ward, he said, none of the major religions appeared to support extending life at all costs.

“What worried me about the Vatican’s suggestion to take the child is that Charlie has irreversible brain injury,” Dr. Truog said in a phone interview. “They could keep the child alive for a period, but toward what purpose?”

The Foreign Office said Mr. Johnson saw the matter as a “deeply tragic and complex case for all involved, and said it was right that decisions continued to be led by expert medical opinion, supported by the courts, in line with Charlie’s best interests.”

It is not the first time the Vatican has intervened in an end-of-life case. One of Francis’ predecessors, John Paul II, spoke out in 2004 about Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was left in a persistent vegetative state after a cardiac arrest. After a long legal dispute between Ms. Schiavo’s husband and her parents, who did not agree on what to do, Ms. Schiavo died in 2005.

As that case made its way through American courts, John Paul said, “A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a ‘vegetable’ or an ‘animal.’”

His successor, Benedict XVI, affirmed in 2007 that artificial feeding and hydration are “an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life” — a clarification of church catechism, which teaches that it can be legitimate to discontinue treatment that is “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome.”

An essay on Wednesday in America, a Catholic magazine, said that while “some well-intentioned members of the pro-life community reflexively leapt to the defense of the Gard family,” they had “failed to recognize the nuances of Catholic teaching on end-of-life care.” The magazine added: “When life is valued so highly relative to other goods, its pursuit becomes detrimental. In effect, life itself becomes an idol.”

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