Bioethics Blogs

Burke, Briggs and Wills: Why we should not fear the judgment in Charlie Gard

In a blog post today, Julian Savulescu argues that in a parallel adult version of the highly controversial Charlie Gard case, a UK court might thwart an unconscious patient’s previously expressed desire for self-funded experimental medical treatment. He finds the Gard decision deeply disturbing and suggests that we all have reason to fear the Charlie Gard judgment.

I respectfully beg to differ.

Julian’s thought experiment of the billionaire ‘Donald Wills’ is not analogous to the real Charlie Gard case, his analysis of the UK legal approach to best interests cases for adults is potentially mistaken, his fear is misplaced.

Wills and Gard

Thought experiments are an important tool in philosophy and medical ethics. They enable us to analyse our intuitive responses to ethical questions. Comparing parallel cases – for example as James Rachels did in his now famous 1975 paper ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’ – can helpfully identify factors that are relevant to ethical analysis, as well as factors that aren’t relevant. However, like scientific experiments, thought experiments need to be carefully designed. Otherwise they can mislead.

Julian imagines a wealthy adult patient, Donald Wills, who has a rare mitochondrial illness very similar to Charlie Gard. While Wills’ wife has identified a potential treatment and requested that he be transferred overseas for an experimental treatment, the imaginary court, in a decision parallel to the Gard case, finds that this treatment would not be in Donald’s best interests. The judge denies the request and Donald’s treatment is withdrawn.

However, in a divergence from the Gard case, Julian tells us that Wills

“wishes to live as long as possible.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.