British parents of baby Charlie Gard holding up flyers about their son

What Is the Real Principle at Issue With Charlie Gard?

A phone call from a state legislator this week put the Charlie Gard situation in a light that I believe conservatives need to think through before they decry a judge “interfering” with the right of little Charlie’s parents to seek the medical care they think he needs. Like most things today, the situation is more complicated than it may appear.

In case you’ve missed the news, 11-month-old Charlie Gard was born in England with mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome (MDDS), a very rare genetic disease. It causes brain damage and a progressive weakening of the muscles.

Charlie’s parents sought his release from the physicians and hospital so that he could be taken to America for experimental treatment. The medical professionals at the British hospital filed a legal proceeding to prevent Charlie from being released from their care because, in their view, the treatment was futile and might extend any suffering he was experiencing.

The judge said that the legal standard required him to determine “the best interest of the child.” Lest you think this is something unique to England, it’s the same legal standard parents in America would face if they and their child were dragged into a court.

Christians, in particular, are upset because a judge and a group of health care professionals are interfering with the parents’ rights to care for their child according to what they think is best. And that leads me to the legislator’s call on Monday.

The legislator wanted to know if I thought our state should ban hormone suppression therapy for minor children confused about their sex, and if other states were looking at doing the same thing. She thought it horrible that parents would embark on a course of treatment that could alter, for life, that child’s sexual/physical appearance and psyche.

Personally, I agree with the legislator, but we need to think through the basis upon which the state would do so.

Will We Be Consistent?

If we are going to hold that the government, through a judge, should not intervene because it would interfere with the rights of Charlie’s parents to seek the treatment they think best for their child, on what basis, then, would it be right for the government, through legislation, to intervene when parents determine the best course of action for helping their sexually confused child is hormone replacement therapy?

When situations such as those involving Charlie Gard arise, each side of the debate over government action or inaction tends to grab hold of a principle that appears to justify its position and inflate it to such a proportion that it leaves no room for the consideration of other important principles. Then we find ourselves backed into a corner.

The Two Competing Principles

In Charlie’s situation, conservatives have a tendency to magnify the God-given rights of parents relative to the nurture and care of their minor children and treat the jurisdiction parents have over their child as if it is absolute. But they would not say that a woman has the right to abort her child simply because it is her child and she is the child’s parent-to-be.

But liberals, because of instances of terrible parental abuse, enlarge the principle that civil government has a God-given duty to protect all its citizens and treat the jurisdiction that civil government has over its citizens as if it is absolute. But they would not say that the civil government can control and second-guess every decision a parent makes lest all those decisions also get second-guessed.

What we need is some standard by which to judge these tough jurisdictional issues between the rights of parents relative to their child and the duties of civil government relative to the protection of all its citizens.

By What Standard Will We Choose Between Them?

So how might I judge between the jurisdictional conflicts in the two situations I mentioned? I would evaluate them by the application of two overarching standards—the sanctity of life and the real biological difference between the sexes, both of which are rooted in the nature of God.

As to the first standard, civil government can and should interfere with a parent’s decision if it would violate life itself. That is the situation with abortion, so I believe the government can interfere for the sake of saving the innocent life. But that is not the situation with Charlie Gard. Treatment in Charlie’s case may save or prolong his life, but even if it does not, civil government has no interest in hastening his death. I believe it should abstain and defer.

As to the second standard, civil government can interfere when the biological distinction between the sexes is being violated. I believe civil government can interfere when a parent’s decision would violate the biological distinction and must abstain if the parent is trying to help the child embrace his or her biological sex. Because hormone suppression therapy is a case of the former, I believe civil government could intervene, but I don’t believe it should intervene, as some states have done, to prohibit a parent from providing professional counseling to a child who is experiencing sexual attractions inconsistent with God’s design in that regard.

These are tough situations; we need to make sure we think through what principles are involved, how they may balance against one another, and what standard we should apply to strike that balance.

The decisions we are facing are getting harder by the day. And they are going to become increasingly hard in a culture that no longer believes that God has set any standards by which those decisions can and should be made.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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