Charlie Gard (Family of Charlie Gard via AP)

The tragedy of Charlie Gard exposes conservatives' morality deficit

No one deserves to die -- including the millions the GOP wanted to kick off Medicaid


Matthew Sheffield
July 28, 2017 8:49PM (UTC)

Charlie Gard, the British baby whose parents had been fighting to get him medical care in the United States in the off-chance that it might save his life, passed away on Friday. His plight was seized upon by conservatives in the United States who used his case to argue against a nationalized health care model.

Every human death is unfortunate. Baby Charlie did not deserve to die. His parents obviously were entitled to make every effort they could to prolong his short and painful life, even if their efforts were not likely to have succeeded. But instead of limiting their expressions to sympathy for Charlie's parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, American conservatives have been trying to score political points using the death of an infant.

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As someone whose twin brother died while we were both infants and as a father of two, I fully understand why Charlie's parents petitioned Britain's National Health Service to try and get treatment for their son's mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, even if it wasn't likely to work. One can indeed fault the NHS for refusing to grant permission to help facilitate Charlie's travel, even after his parents managed to raise the more than $1 million needed to pay for a highly experimental treatment that might have been able to help him.

The conservative concern and outrage on behalf of the family is commendable. But alas, most of them appear to be unable to see the larger picture of his sad story, for just as young Charlie did not deserve to die, neither do the millions of people whom Republicans have been trying to deprive of health insurance in this country.

Not everyone who presently lacks insurance or would have lost it in the future under the GOP's various health care proposals would have died as a result but there's no question that many of them would. Depending upon the study, researchers have found somewhere between 18,000 and 45,000 people a year die because they cannot afford medical treatment.

Conservatives have responded to the idea of governmental health care by clinging to a 2013 study of Medicaid expansion in Oregon which they have interpreted to mean that the federal program does not improve health care outcomes for recipients. Beyond the fact that their claims are based on misunderstandings of the study -- as Ezra Klein noted last month at Vox, one of the paper's authors explicitly rejects the idea that Medicaid doesn't reduce mortality rates -- it's notable that none of the conservatives who claim Medicaid is useless are going around proclaiming they will never use it. Even conservatives' favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, went onto Medicare and Social Security in her final years.

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In economic contexts, conservatives are fond of citing Frédéric Bastiat's theory that governmental intervention in an economy oftentimes yields unintended consequences. Politicians should focus on what is not seen, as the argument goes. But when it comes to their fellow human beings who might die as a result of inadequate or non-existent medical care, conservatives have an incredible blind spot for the people that they do not see: the parents whose sick children do not become internationally famous, the poorly educated immigrant who is unable to get a job that pays for her health insurance, the woman who comes down with cancer before she's become eligible for Medicare, the daughter whose father makes too much money to be eligible for Medicaid but not enough to cover her kidney dialysis.

None of these people deserve to die any more than Charlie did. And yet in the pure free-market health care system conservatives say they want, all of them will. Charlie's death is the death they can see. But Republicans are ignoring millions of deaths they cannot.

Had young Charlie lived in a purely free-market health care system, his parents might have been able to get treatment for him but unless they had been able to raise the millions it would have entailed to keep him alive, they would have faced certain bankruptcy and financial disaster after he had died. As the case of a New York couple who committed suicide only hours after the Senate Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act demonstrates, huge debt loads sometimes can lead people to take their own lives. If America made sure that no one would go broke paying for medical care, deaths of this nature would be fully preventable.

Conservatives outside of the United States have long come to accept that governments have a moral duty to protect the lives of their citizens. In fact, the very first system of universal health care was created by the conservative German prime minister Otto von Bismarck in 1883. Due to the tremendous hold that anti-government billionaires hold on the Republican Party, it will likely take a while before the American right gets on board with universal coverage. Sadly, many more American Charlie Gards will die before that happens. If only conservatives could see their fates in young Charlie's.

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Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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