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Publication - Dr Giles Birchley

    Charlie Gard and the weight of parental rights to seek experimental treatment


    Birchley, G, 2018, ‘Charlie Gard and the weight of parental rights to seek experimental treatment’. Journal of Medical Ethics.


    The case of Charlie Gard, an infant with a genetic illness whose parents sought experimental treatment in the USA, brought important debates about the moral status of parents and children to the public eye. After setting out the facts of the case, this article considers some of these debates through the lens of parental rights. Parental rights are most commonly based on the promotion of a child's welfare; however, in Charlie's case, promotion of Charlie's welfare cannot explain every fact of the case. Indeed, some seem most logically to extend from intrinsic parental rights, that is, parental rights that exist independent of welfare promotion. I observe that a strong claim for intrinsic parental rights can be built on arguments for genetic propriety and children's limited personhood. Critique of these arguments suggests the scope of parental rights remains limited: property rights entail proper use; non-personhood includes only a small cohort of very young or seriously intellectually disabled children and the uniqueness of parental genetic connection is limited. Moreover, there are cogent arguments about parents' competence to make judgements, and public interest arguments against allowing access to experimental treatment. Nevertheless, while arguments based on propriety may raise concerns about the attitude involved in envisioning children as property, I conclude that these arguments do appear to offer a prima facie case for a parental right to seek experimental treatment in certain limited circumstances.

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