Commercials, Fake News and Charlie Gard

A popular insurance commercial irks me. A woman tells of the accident in which her new car is totaled. “No one is hurt, “she tells us, “but there will still be pain.” Turns out she didn’t buy new car replacement from the sponsor. Extolling the virtues of the program, she muses, “Guess they don’t want you driving around on three wheels. Smart.” Commercials aren’t news but they do give some insight into the epidemic of fake news and how it affects almost everything we read.

Commercials exist to get you to buy a product, not to communicate information for discussion and resolution of problems. We’ve become a people who speak in commercials, more often intent on selling our positions than on communicating with each other. Fake news does much the same thing.

I wonder whether some of that was at play in the Charlie Gard case, selling us on the drama rather than reporting fairly on the very complicated facts. The story was the most heart-rending and tragic case to hit the headlines in a long time. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of having a baby, knowing that he was going to die so soon after birth. My heart nearly stops at the thought.

For weeks, the dominant media theme, understandably, was outrage that the state made a decision most thought should be left to the parents. But there were enough other legitimate issues that it is difficult to be on the right side of all of them at the same time:
• Should parents always be free to make medical decisions for their children no matter what those decisions are?
• Is there a right to futile care–care where no cure or reasonable benefit is possible— and who decides?
• When does treatment aimed at returning health or function end and delaying death through life support begin?
• What are the ethics of offering experimental treatment to parents desperate for help?
• Can physicians be compelled to participate in treatment they disagree with, especially when they believe it to be futile?
• Are there limits when it comes to health care and how do they apply to individual cases?

Those are valid questions and they need to be addressed, not commercialized. I was struck by all the language in the coverage of Charlie Gard that replaced information with passion. The first headline I saw equated the dispute with an intentional killing:

The Court Ordered Killing of Charlie Gard

As an attorney, I realize that words matter and how much they play on people’s emotions. This sort of hyperbole is deliberately misleading and inflammatory: just another version of fake new intended to make a point rather than clarify the situation for thought and discussion and, perhaps, resolution.

One thing is clear: when the respirator that kept Charlie breathing was disconnected, Charlie died of his disease. To equate a natural death with intentional killing makes discussion of whether there is any reason for the state’s intervention–or whether any other factors might have something to do with the decision — impossible because it demonizes anyone who sees the problem differently. The situation becomes immediately emotional.

The problem is this: when emotions and reason clash, so much of the time, emotion wins by default these days. Those using reason are demonized as uncaring or heartless. A little like that insurance commercial, it is manipulation to which we all are prone succumb. And, like it or not, we are all prone do it.

But people like Charlie Gard, his parents, the Courts, and the Great Ormond Street Hospital deserve better. They deserve a public environment in which we put our passions in perspective long enough to listen to someone who might see things differently and have something to offer, especially in cases as multifaceted as this one.

Prudence dictates that we put right reason as well as the tug of emotion in the service of resolving these problems. Once passions are inflamed, it’s almost impossible for people to sit down and learn from each other. And that, I think, is exactly the point of the Pontifical Academy of Life statement:

The proper question to be raised in this and in any other unfortunately similar case is this: what are the best interests of the patient? We must do what advances the health of the patient, but we must also accept the limits of medicine and, as stated in paragraph 65 of the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, avoid aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or the family. Likewise, the wishes of parents must be heard and respected, but they too must be helped to understand the unique difficulty of their situation and not be left to face their painful decisions alone. If the relationship between doctor and patient (or parents as in Charlie’s case) is interfered with, everything becomes more difficult and legal action becomes a last resort, with the accompanying risk of ideological or political manipulation, which is always to be avoided, or of media sensationalism, which can be sadly superficial.

Perhaps the cautionary lesson from the Charlie Gard case is not just to fear intervention in parental decisions by the state, but also to beware of manipulation by the press or anyone with a limited perspective and an agenda to advance. Fake news is popping up more often these days, and the coverage of the Charlie Gard case was no exception.