In an article appearing February 4th 2020, Kyleen Wright, President of Texans for Life, uses the term “pro-life” to embrace a position that is emphatically not pro-life. Her analysis typifies much of the discourse regarding the appropriateness of extraordinary care in bioethics and, unfortunately, misstates certain fundamental principles. According to Ms. Wright, “The pro-life position on Tinslee Lewis is to take her off life support and end her suffering.” She even goes so far as to claim that there is a link between advocating for extraordinary care in cases such as Tinslee Lewis and the societal acceptance of euthanasia. She also claims that her position advances conscience rights for physicians and other healthcare workers. God bless Ms. Wright for striving to advocate for the dignity of the human person, but her position should be carefully differentiated from the authentic “pro-life” position in cases where children must receive extraordinary care to survive.
Tinslee Lewis is a 1 year old born with a severe heart defect. The medical facility and her doctors want to remove life support by taking her off a ventilator. Her mom, Trinity Lewis, as well as her attorneys and advisers at Texas Right to Life filed suit to require the hospital to keep Tinslee alive so that she can eventually be transferred to a long-term care facility that would accept Tinslee. So in essence, there is a child receiving extraordinary care at the request of her mom, and a hospital and doctors that do not want to continue providing care. This case is very similar to two Michigan cases, the Bobby Reyes case and the Titus Cromer case. Admittedly, if Trinity wanted to remove her daughter from life support which is extraordinary in this case, there is nothing morally wrong with this decision. Nor is it morally wrong for Trinity to keep her daughter on life support. Although extraordinary care is not mandatory in Catholic teaching, it is also not prohibited. To suggest, as does Ms. Wright, that it is “pro-life” to let Tinslee die implies that keeping her on life support is not pro-life. But how can a decision to keep someone alive not be consistent with being “pro-life”? This is manifestly absurd. One can say that being pro-life does not require the administration of extraordinary care, but not that withholding extraordinary care is the only viable pro-life position.
The reason for the failure of logic in Ms. Wright’s analysis is because she ignores the key issue in the Tinslee Lewis case, which was the key issue in the Bobby Reyes and Titus Cromer cases and in all such cases: the issue of parental rights in healthcare. The question is not whether it is pro-life to administer extraordinary care or to deny extraordinary care. Both are consistent with being pro-life. The question is: who is the right person or entity to make the decision regarding whether to continue administering extraordinary care? In the natural order of things, parents are entrusted by God with the protection, education, and care of their children. Absent a clear showing of abuse, parents have the right to decide what is best for their child, which includes the decision of whether to continue extraordinary care. To hold the opposite view that the hospital should make this decision is to disregard the parental rights that are oriented to the best interests of the child. After all, parents are the ones who develop a bond with their children, and so it is much more probable that their decision will be motivated by authentic love rather than ulterior motives. The point is that God has entrusted the protection of that child to his/her mom and dad. It cannot possibly be pro-life to disregard the wishes of parents who have been entrusted by God with the right and duty to protect the life of their children. Indeed, this type of paternalism threatens the proper autonomy of the family, the guardian of life.
Sadly, Ms. Wright’s separation of “pro-life” from the family is all too common. Without respecting the wishes of parents, any appropriation of the label “pro-life” is deceptive. Advocates for not continuing extraordinary care and continuing extraordinary care can go back and forth all day long and to a large degree, one’s decision will depend upon how they understand the meaning of life. The Catholic Church wisely permits both opinions because they are both reasonable and respectful of the mystery of human life. In fact, it may be that some are called by God to suffer more in this life and others are not. Co-opting the label “pro-life” to validate one’s own personal opinion regarding the administration of extraordinary care to a child without respecting the rights and duties of the child’s parents to make that most important determination is a disservice to the cause of life. There is nothing pro-life or ethical about a paternalism that insists upon mandating conduct, in this case, the withdrawal of extraordinary care, that is not mandated by the objective moral law and the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, attention must be paid to the issue of how parental rights in healthcare are related to the issue of conscience rights. Ms. Wright argues that mandating extraordinary care in this case violates the conscience rights of Tinslee’s doctors not to administer extraordinary care. She sees this as consistent with doctors not being required to perform abortions and sterilizations. But this argument is also misleading because the two cases are very different in critical respects. Abortion and sterilization are objective moral evils inconsistent with Catholic teaching, whereas administering extraordinary care is not an objective moral evil, but rather, morally neutral. In fact, administering extraordinary care to Tinslee Lewis in the form of a respirator is healthcare, albeit healthcare that is not strictly required by the moral law. Conscience rights are sacred and Ms. Wright is correct that they are a cornerstone of the pro-life movement, but conscience rights end when they threaten the lives and rights of others. In this case, violating Trinity’s parental right to keep her daughter Tinslee alive should not be cloaked as a legitimate expression of medical conscience. This distortion of conscience rights is also unworthy of the label “pro-life.”
Sadly, Ms. Wright’s article is illustrative of a broad movement to sever “pro-life” from parental rights. The cause of protecting human life and the cause of respecting the authority of the family are inseparably connected. Pro-life advocates would do well to take note.