The challenges of caring for the critically ill are often accompanied by many conflicting ethical opinions. The case of eleven-month-old Charlie Gard is no exception. Shortly after birth, he was struck with an extremely rare disease called mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome (MDDS). His muscles deteriorating, Charlie has been kept alive on a ventilator in a London hospital. The hospital has sought legal permission to remove the life support and allow Charlie to “die with dignity.” His parents have desperately fought to keep him alive while an experimental treatment can be administered.
While even several Catholic ethicists remain divided on how to care for Charlie, some secular ethicists like Peter Singer (who consistently argues against the Catholic ethos) have argued positively for this child to receive medical treatment. Surprisingly, that argument places Singer in the same camp as Pope Francis and President Donald Trump, who have also advocated for the care of this very sick boy.
Catholic teaching considers “ordinary means” to be treatment that has a proportionate benefit, while not involving undue burden; such means are obligatory. “Extraordinary means,” differently, are those that are not proportionately beneficial and those in which the burden outweighs the benefit. Such means need not be used, but could legitimately be chosen so long as they do not cause or prolong the patient’s suffering. What makes Charlie’s case remarkable is that the hospital has dispensed with this age-old distinction, not to mention the legitimate freedom of Charlie’s parents, in determining that his life is no longer worth living.