With the passing of Charlie Gard last Friday, there are still many unanswered moral questions about his life and death. Your teens may be wondering: Is it ever okay to unplug someone’s ventilator? Wasn’t Charlie already “brain-dead” anyway when he went to hospice?
Charlie’s case provides a sad opportunity to share with teens the fact that the evils of the culture of death and euthanasia affect each one of us.
Was it wrong or selfish for Charlie’s parents to want to keep him alive while they pursued alternative treatment instead of just “letting him go”?
No, Charlie’s parents did what any devoted parents would do—they fought hard for months to get their son the care he deserved. Charlie’s parents did not act out of selfishness. On the contrary, they did everything out of love for Charlie. In trying to seek care for him, their rights as parents were usurped. They showed great courage and perseverance when faced with the obstacles of the British court system. No one should ever prevent parents from caring for their children.
There are two kinds of care a patient can receive—ordinary treatment and extraordinary treatment. Ordinary care includes things like food and water (through a feeding tube if the patient requires it), oxygen, and a patient’s usual medications. Extraordinary means of treatment go above and beyond what is necessary to keep a patient comfortable. Sometimes extraordinary care can be a burden on the patient and requires heroic virtue to continue.
In Charlie’s case, receiving the experimental drug from America would have been considered extraordinary means of treatment because there was no guarantee that the treatment wouldn’t be a burden on Charlie. At the end of a long legal battle his parents decided not to pursue the treatment, even when they had the money and resources to do so, because Charlie’s muscles had deteriorated to the point where the treatment would have been a burden. Had he been given the treatment when his parents wanted so many months earlier, it is possible he would have responded favorably. The truth is, we will never know.
Was Charlie’s ventilator considered “extraordinary care,” in which case it would have been morally acceptable to turn it off?
No, every human being has a right to oxygen, even when that oxygen is administered artificially through a ventilator. According to Dr. Paul Byrne, a retired neonatologist and pro-life advocate for end-of-life care for premature babies born with congenital illnesses, a ventilator such as the one Charlie was on should be considered an ordinary form of care.
Dr. Byrne told CLSP: “I have treated hundreds [of patients] (perhaps an even larger number) without ever turning off a ventilator. A ventilator is not burdensome to the patient once it is established.”
A news article on the passing of Charlie Gard stated that the ventilator was “breathing for him.” Is that true? Does a ventilator actually breathe for a person?
A ventilator assisted Charlie in respiration, but his body did the actual work of breathing. As Dr. Byrne explained to CLSP:
The ventilator does not respirate, and the ventilator does not move the air out. It is the elastic recoil of the ventilator-expanded lungs and chest that moves the air out. This can occur only in healthy lungs and chest. This is quickly lost without circulation and respiration after true death.
A ventilator does not work in a dead patient, nor can a ventilator force a patient to stay alive artificially. If Charlie had been kept on the ventilator until he died naturally, the ventilator would have ceased to work once he had died. Instead, Charlie’s ventilator was removed and he presumably died of suffocation.
Did the hospice kill Charlie when it unplugged his ventilator?
Yes. Charlie died because his life support and means of receiving oxygen (an ordinary form of care) were taken away from him. The ventilator was not a burden to Charlie.
Patients have the right to refuse extraordinary treatment that would prolong their suffering, such as the experimental treatment that Charlie could have had in America. However, refusing a person food, water, or oxygen to cause his death—just as Charlie’s oxygen supply was removed—is immoral.
Wasn’t Charlie dying anyway?
Charlie was a very sick baby who was probably going to die at some point (as most children with his genetic illness do), but at the time his ventilator was unplugged, he was not dying. The argument that Charlie was “just dying anyway” blinds us to the immorality of his murder.
As St. Augustine reminds us in City of God, there is no such thing as the state of dying. One is either alive or he is dead. St. Augustine wrote:
For so long as the soul is in the body, especially if consciousness remain, the man certainly lives; for body and soul constitute the man. And thus, before death, he cannot be said to be in death; but when, on the other hand, the soul has departed, and all bodily sensation is extinct, death is past, and the man is dead. Between these two states the dying condition finds no place; for if a man yet lives, death has not arrived; if he has ceased to live, death is past. Never, then, is he dying, that is, comprehended in the state of death.
As mere human beings, we are not the arbiters of life and death. We cannot control the time when God creates a person and the time He calls him home. That decision belongs to God alone. So when euthanasia advocates speak of “speeding things along” or helping a person die, what they are actually talking about is murder.
Did the court truly have Charlie’s best interests at heart?
Charlie’s whole case boils down to this question: Who has the power to decide when a person’s life begins and ends? The answer is simple: God alone decides. The court that ordered Charlie’s death did not have his best interests at heart because it decided to take the place of God in determining when Charlie should die.
God has a plan for each one of us. Despite His unconditional love for us, God never promised that our lives on earth would be free from suffering. Remember that even after baptism we still have the stain of Original Sin to bear in our broken world. Just as God appointed the time for each of us to be born, He also arranged the time when He would call us home to Himself. Because of the court’s order, Charlie’s death was hastened and his life cruelly cut short. We will never know the great plans that God had in store for Charlie before his final moments here on earth.
Charlie’s story provides an excellent opportunity to talk with your teens about end-of-life care for patients who are terminally ill. In his short life, Charlie Gard touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Had he been allowed to live, he could have touched even more people. The court robbed Charlie of his life and countless other people of the chance to love him and learn from him. His story, like so many others, is important because it shows us how low our civilization has gone when we murder the weakest and most vulnerable people among us.
Don’t let Charlie’s death be the end of the conversations you have with your children about euthanasia and assisted suicide. Use the following resources to help teach your children the truth about protecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society from evils like euthanasia.
- Spend time talking with your children about the dangers of the culture of death in our healthcare system. Our unit study Euthanasia: An Introduction exposes the truth about physician-assisted suicide by explaining what the Church teaches about euthanasia and suffering. Students have the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of three women who were faced with debilitating illnesses and determine whether or not their choices were moral. This is a great one-session introduction to talking about why euthanasia is wrong.
- Learn from articles about euthanasia—from a brief history and definitions to legislative policy and loving wills—on the American Life League website.
- Read Dr. Paul Byrne’s article on the Charlie Gard case at Renewamerica.com. It provides great clarity on the kind of care Charlie should have received.
Photo credit: www.charliesfight.org
Mary Kizior is the Product Development and Marketing Manager for the Culture of Life Studies Program. Her work has appeared on LifeSiteNews.com, Christ Is Our Hope magazine, Celebrate Life Magazine, Defend Life magazine, the Peanut Butter and Grace blog, and other blogs.