This story was updated on Monday, July 3 at 12:53pm.
Charlie Gard was born with a rare genetic condition and has suffered from brain damage and loss of muscle function. After British doctors advised his parents, Connie Yates and Chris Gard, that they should end life support for the terminally ill 10-month-old, they raised nearly 2 million dollars to transfer Charlie to the U.S. for experimental treatment. But three separate British courts intervened, siding with medical specialists who said that further prolonging treatment would cause the baby “significant harm.” In June, the European Court of Human Rights weighed in on the parents’ final appeal. They lost. Charlie would be taken off of life support.
Since then, the global reaction has been chaotic, with leaders from the pope to the president of the United States weighing in on the case.
First, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement, seeming to side with the European courts. “We must also accept the limits of medicine and … avoid aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or the family,” wrote Vincenzo Paglia, the body’s president. While people should never deliberately end a human life, he added, sometimes “we ... have to recognize the limitations of what can be done.”
Then the pope weighed in—and said almost exactly the opposite. Francis “is following with affection and sadness the case of little Charlie Gard and expresses his closeness to his parents,” a Vatican press office statement said. “For this he prays that their wish to accompany and treat their child until the end is not neglected.”
On Monday, President Trump added his support with a tweet supporting Charlie and his family.
If we can help little #CharlieGard, as per our friends in the U.K. and the Pope, we would be delighted to do so.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2017
Charlie’s case touches on some of the most sensitive moral and political questions about the role of the state at the end of life. The decisions of the European courts represented the final word on whether Charlie’s parents could pursue treatment in the U.S., and after the ruling, Yates and Gard claimed the hospital had denied permission for them to take Charlie back to their home to die. Yates and Gard have framed the medical dispute as “Charlie’s fight,” developing a large social-media following as they chronicled their effort to pursue further treatment for their son. The case also has religious dimensions: On their instagram page, Yates and Gard documented their celebration of their son’s baptism and showed him clutching a pendant of St. Jude, the Catholic figure most often associated with hospitals and medical care. Media in the U.K. have followed the Gard family’s case closely and the court orders to end Charlie’s life have been fiercely criticized by conservatives in the U.S. and abroad.
With the Church weighing in, the case took on a whole new dimension. The competing statements seemed to reveal an internal dispute over end-of-life issues within the Vatican. But they also teed up Trump’s intervention. Religious conservatives in the U.S. were outraged over the Pontifical Academy for Life’s original statement: “Besides being patronizing, the Vatican’s statement is a gross distortion of the situation,” wrote Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review. “It portrays the Gards as acting alongside the doctors, but subject to outside manipulation. The Gards are resisting the doctors. The Gards are not facing ‘their decisions.’ They are facing authorities that have overridden them.”
Trump, who has consistently expressed his verbal support for religious freedom, has now stepped in, cementing the issue as an international cause for conservatives. “Upon learning of baby Charlie Gard's situation, President Trump has offered to help the family in this heartbreaking situation,” the White House said in a statement issued on Monday afternoon. “Although the President himself has not spoken to the family, he does not want to pressure them in any way, members of the administration have spoken to the family in calls facilitated by the British government. The President is just trying to be helpful if at all possible.”
It’s not clear how the president’s statement would change the Gard family’s situation: They already had the money for Charlie’s treatment and had sought to bring him to the U.S. The American president can’t change the way European courts work, or annul their authority. But Trump has marked a difference in orientation between at least one part of Europe and the United States. While the high courts of Europe have asserted their authority and doctors’ right to decide when and how Charlie dies, the president of the United States has decided he will champion the family’s choice to decide—no matter whether or not he actually has the ability to intervene in one British baby’s life.