August 02, 2017

Gard case gives a dire glimpse of future

By Cullen Herout *
Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

The recent passing of Charlie Gard has left many people around the world wondering what might have come from an experimental treatment that for various reasons was continually denied by courts in the United Kingdom. Parents’ Right advocates were rightfully upset by the courts’ on-going refusal to allow Charlie’s parents to make decisions for him. While this sentiment was widespread, it was not universal. 

Shortly before Charlie’s passing late last week, The Guardian published an op-ed from emeritus professor Ian Kennedy defending the process of the courts in the United Kingdom. Kennedy argued that, as a society, we need to decide how we will handle cases such as Charlie Gard’s. He noted the value of having a set of principles and rules that guide us as we work toward making the best decisions in these cases. In the process of defending the actions of the court, he explains the steps by which a society ought to establish principles and decide difficult cases:

“These are the steps. The first is to recognise that children do not belong to their parents. Second, when a claim is made that parents have rights over their children, it is important to step back and examine the language used. We need to remind ourselves that parents do not have rights regarding their children, they only have duties, the principal duty being to act in their children’s best interests.”

From there, he proceeds to make his case that in difficult circumstances when there arises a conflict between the parents and various authorities, a court should be the ultimate arbiter. He explains, “The court’s sole concern must be, can only be, for the child and the child’s interests.”

Most would agree that there are cases where having a court as an ultimate arbiter can work out well. He cites one such example, a case where the parents were threatening to prematurely end the life of a non-terminal patient. This is an example of a court fulfilling its duty to protect the rights of a non-terminal patient. Protecting the rights of individuals is the reason the law and the courts exist, and most would agree that the court acted properly in that case.

But in the case of Charlie Gard, the court rejected every appeal made by Charlie’s parents to prolong his life and give him a chance at an experimental treatment. In the name of “acting in Charlie’s best interests”, the court decided that Charlie would not be allowed to receive an experimental treatment, that he would not be allowed to go home to die, and that he would not be allowed to spend more than a few hours in a hospice facility before having his life support removed. In Charlie’s case, the court acted more to usurp rights than it did to protect them. It’s a short step from protecting rights to limiting freedoms, and while the court is tasked with the former, the result should never be the latter. 

While the case of Charlie Gard might seem shocking, this totalitarian idea that children do not belong to their parents is not new. In 2013, former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry made the same claim, urging viewers to break free from the “retrograde conception” that kids belong to their parents. 

As Marissa Mayer pointed out for Alliance Defending Freedom, this raises an obvious question: If children do not belong to their parents, to whom do they belong?

The obvious answer here is that children belong to the community. A community is, conveniently, run by a government. So if children belong to the community that is run by a government, then ultimately the government gets to decide what is best for children. 

This noxious notion that children don’t belong to their parents has dire implications, and it carries with it a profound danger to the future of civilization. In particular, it is a threat to the moral fabric that holds together our society, and it is a threat to those parents who wish to raise their children to follow religious precepts.

There is little question that if a court or a government has the power to decide what is in the best interest of children, it also has the power to decide what is harmful or dangerous to them. There are many examples in which the government already does this. In its quest to protect the rights and interests of children, we’ve seen government enact laws regulating things that parents must do for them. 

Until now, however, there’s never been a question to whom children belong. None of the laws have been an infringement on the rights of parents to raise their children how they see fit. But the case of Charlie Gard represents a step into new territory, a territory where the government is no longer protecting the rights of children but usurping the rights of parents.

A court or a government that wields this amount of power almost certainly has the power to forbid parents from raising their children according to religious convictions.

If that sounds far-fetched or absurd, consider the following examples that indicate the existence of a movement bent on showing that religion is harmful to children:

In 2014, Psychology Today published a column listing the ways in which Christianity is harmful to children.

In 2015, the journal Current Biology published a study finding that religious children are less kind than their non-religious counterparts

Popular atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins has claimed that forcing religion on your children is as bad as child abuse.

This video one of many trying to demonstrate how debilitating religious upbringing can be for children.

And so on. 

This growing movement to show the dangers of religious upbringing is real, and it has its tentacles in popular culture as well. Who has not heard the dangers of “forcing our morality on other people”? We live in a culture that seeks to remove the shame and stigma associated with immoral behavior. This quest to normalize immoral behavior is a quest to commence with an amoral culture. 

Of course, the premise underlying this movement is that promoting a certain morality over another is harmful, and should be rejected. Further, the idea that forcing morality on others is somehow harmful would certainly apply to children as well.

So if we’ve accepted the premise that children do not belong to their parents, and that a government or a court is responsible for deciding what is best for children, we may soon see the day that parents no longer have the right to raise children according to religious precepts. According to Kennedy, so long as the court was acting in the best interest of children, parents would cease to be the ultimate authority on how their children are raised. Yet, as in the Charlie Gard case, such a scenario would be far past the realm of protecting rights of the individual and deep into the realm of limiting the rights of parents. 

The precedent set in the case of Charlie Gard should send a chill up the spine of all who are concerned about government overreach. The actions of the court in this case provided a blueprint for how parents’ rights are stripped away and given to a court system with values that may not necessarily align with the values of the parents. 

The idea that children do not belong to their parents has dire implications. Were this hypothetical reality to ever come to fruition, it would be a devastating blow to parents who want a say in how their children are raised. 

Cullen Herout hosts Ready To Stand, a pro-life radio show, which can be heard here: Follow him on Facebook here:, or contact him here:

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.