Why is the story of keeping alive one seriously sick baby dominating the news headlines? Not for one day, not even for a week, but for a full three months since a High Court Judge ruled that doctors could withdraw the life support of the terminally ill Charlie Gard.
Though afflicted with a rare disorder called mitochondrial depletion syndrome, a rare disease which affects the genetic building blocks that give energy to cells and which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage, the baby’s parents are determined to win one more ‘chance of life’ for him—an experimental treatment in the US.
The media have run with the story. His parent’s defiant rejection of legal and medical judgement has provided daily drama and perfect headline copy. The story of one baby, of the thousands dying worldwide, has gone global.
Pope Francis and Donald Trump have taken up his parents' cause, joining the legions of celebrities lining up to give their support. Luminaries like Peter Andre, Michelle Keegan, Katie Price and Charlotte Crosby seemingly could not wait to get in on the act of saving Charlie’s life.
But why this 'much ado about nothing’? Don’t the actors in this particular play inhabit a Western secular world which, if declining Church attendance is anything to go by, has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,’ as Richard Dawkins so poetically pens it in The Selfish Gene?
If this is indeed the case then why have the selfish genes of so many people conspired to contribute over £ 1.3 million and 500,000 signatures in a battle for the survival of the weakest rather than handing Charlie Gard over to ‘nature, red in tooth and claw?’ Why do they think it is so wrong to let baby Charlie’s life follow its natural course once left to palliative care?
Maybe the supporters of Charlie Gard’s ‘right to life’ are fighting for more than his life? Are they, I wonder, fighting for a moral principle that is extraordinarily deeply entrenched in our Western collective consciousness but is not a universal value? Or are they simply attention seekers with less than selfless desire to keep this baby alive by virtue-signalling their fake compassion in this age of sanctimonious sentimentality? It is impossible to know.
The Canaanites of the ancient Near East would have mocked their morality. They sacrificed their babies to the god Molech by placing them on a sizzling hot pair of metal hands sticking out from the god’s idol.
The Spartans of ancient Greece would similarly have shown contempt for their concern. Plutarch, the Greek historian, records that the Spartan elders examined all newborn babies and ordered that any who were not well-built and sturdy were to be killed by leaving them in the bush at the foot of Mount Taygetus.
Plato quotes Socrates in Theaetetus saying that children with any defects should be killed so to avoid other people finding fault with them.
The second century Greek gynaecologist Soranus of Ephesus gave instructions on how to determine whether to kill newborn children in his popular textbook Gynaecology.
Such historic references arouse shock and horror in contemporary Western society. Yet in the 21st century female infanticide (more common than male infanticide) is still practiced in India and elsewhere, a fact even the BBC has to concede.
Of course, I am listing examples of cultures that saw no problem in terminating the lives of both healthy and sick babies. But that is the point. If a culture has no problem killing a healthy baby inside or outside the womb, why should it even give a second thought to saving a terminally ill infant? And what do we mean by a “healthy” baby? How healthy should a baby be in order to be kept alive?
Peter Singer, the renowned Australian moral philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University has proposed a 28-day qualification period after birth during which infants can be killed.
To Singer, 28-day old babies are non-persons. ‘Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons,’ therefore, ‘the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.’
So how is that celebrities, who would be horrified by Singer’s pronouncements, would denounce pro–life lobbies or assert that female ‘bodily autonomy’ supersedes the unborn’s right to life? How is it that they are gripped by the sanctity of life in this case and fixated with the passion bordering on obsession to save a sick baby like Charlie Gard but not in another?
Maybe Professor Singer, a militant atheist himself, has the answer revealed in his candid confession that: ‘Our present attitudes date from the coming of Christianity’ specifically ‘…the belief that since we are created by God we are his property, and to kill a human being is to usurp God’s right to decide when we shall live and when we shall die.’
‘Today’ he goes on in Practical Ethics, ‘the doctrines are no longer generally accepted …. but the ethical attitudes to which they gave rise fit in with the deep-seated Western belief in the uniqueness and special privileges of our species, and have survived.’
He asserts that it may be time to throw the moral baby out with the Christian bathwater. ‘Now that we are reassessing our speciesist view of nature… it is also time to reassess our belief in the sanctity of the lives of members of our species.’
Singer might applaud the ‘non-speciest’ ethics of many second-century Roman women who murdered their newborns but looked after their parrots and curlews well, as Clement of Alexandria records, but they are one too many even for the Guardian.
The conundrum of Charlie Gard’s life is a myriad of moral and medical complexities. The questions fly thick and fast. What ethical framework do we use to determine if this child’s life is worth saving? Is it the ‘reflective equilibrium’ framework of John Rawls which ‘involves developing principles (such as the best interests principle and those of distributive justice) and concepts (such as wellbeing and a life worth living)’ that Savulescu cites in his fine Lancet article? Or does a transcendent moral principle involving a Creator who ‘knitted me together in my mother’s womb’, as the Psalmist sings, eclipse even Rawls’s principle?
Who is the final determining agent of Charlie Gard’s life—the State, the parents, the medical guild or public opinion? Who determines who is the final determining agent and on what basis is this determination to be made? How are the actors’ competing ‘rights’ or ‘entitlements’ to be assessed?
Can Justice Francis and the courts offer ‘independent and objective judgment in the child’s best interests’ and on what basis is this claim acceptable?
What if the parents wanted to stop treatment despite high chance of success? Is human life ultimately in the hands of the State, the parents or a transcendent Creator?
I pray daily for Charlie Gard and for his troubled parents. But more than this even, I pray for our deeply confused and morally adrift post-Christian society – one that is, in large part, no longer willing to acknowledge that its moral life and values are inextricably rooted in its Judeo-Christian past.
I pray that more of my fellow Westerners will accept that the sanctity of life and concern for the weakest and most vulnerable is not a universal human value but is uniquely Judeo-Christian one.