by David P. Easton
This article has been triggered by the case of baby Charlie Gard, a patient in Great Ormond Street Hospital with mitochondrial depletion syndrome. The hospital felt that it was right to withdraw life-support treatment from him. His parents appealed the decision in the high court. They had wanted to take him to America in the hope that an untried treatment could help his condition. Mr Justice Francis ruled that the hospital could halt Charlie’s life support.
I need to state first of all that what follows is not about this particular case. I also fully recognise that it is all too easy for those not immediately involved in situations such as this to make pious or platitudinous comments. For those intimately involved – family, friends, medical staff and, indeed, high court judges, the issues are immense, personal and deeply challenging. This may sound obvious, but I feel very strongly that it is important, before exploring ethical or theological issues arising from such cases, to acknowledge that discussion must not take place with abstract, theoretical detachment but in the context of the real lives of real people.
I want to explore two questions:
Whose are we?
How does the Church engage theologically with complex issues such as this?
Listening to a report on the radio, I heard it said that the parents believed that, as the child was theirs, they had the right to decide his treatment. Parents often speak of ‘their children’. Does this mean that they ‘own’ them or that they have a more intangible attachment of love and care? In this country we clearly do not believe that even parents have the final say on their children, as this case and instances where children are taken into care illustrate. So does the state, acting on behalf of all of us through the courts or social services, etc, ‘own’ its children? Most of us would probably be uneasy with such a notion, even if we couldn’t quite say why.
But there is a sense in which children belong to all of us. I don’t have children but I have obligations towards them that I am happy to fulfil. I am happy to pay taxes for their education. I would stop a child from running out in front of a bus. In paying taxes or stopping a child I am acting in the belief that their welfare is not just the responsibility of her/his parents; there is a sense in which they are my children too. So, I am expressing a degree of ‘ownership’ of the child, but, by the same token, the child’s parents are willing to share some of that ‘ownership’ with me – presuming that they are glad that I am paying taxes and stopping their child from being run over.
So, if children are, in the sense that I have been suggesting, ‘owned’ by all of us, when does that ‘ownership’ cease? Do I refuse to pay taxes for things that adults require, such as roads or further education? Would I ‘own’ an adult enough to stop him/her being killed? If I would, does that mean that there is a sense in which we own one another? And what does that mean in a western society which increasingly puts a premium on individualism and self-determinism? And what is the difference between the sort of ownership I have been positing and that which becomes controlling and sees the other as one to be possessed for our own ends rather than theirs or the society of which we are a part?
And where is the theology in all this? Where do we fit with one another? Where do we fit with God?
‘My God I am thine, what a comfort divine’.
When we sing this hymn with more or less gusto, are we saying that we are ‘owned’ by God because we have chosen to be? Or were we God’s possessed by his love – as infant baptism liturgies claim – even before we knew of him? And if we are owned by God, whether through design or desire, what does that have to say about our liberty and free will? Is the notion of being possessed by God make it more or less likely that someone would want to explore what it means to be a Christian disciple?
Finally, in a world that is constantly throwing up examples of the complexity and challenge of the one that we began with, how do we engage those in the wider world with what it means to be fully human and yet touched by the divine? How do we not appear to be ever-ready with the glib answer or ill-thought-through response? How do we avoid the twin dangers of appearing to know everything or knowing nothing? How do we wrestle beyond the ropes of over-simple certainties?