BOB GARFIELD: The supposed evils of single payer persist as a right—wing meme, sometimes in the most heartbreaking ways. A year ago in a London hospital, a baby named Charlie Gard was born with mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, which, in his first month of life, left him profoundly brain damaged. The hospital, mindful of the infant's ongoing pain, wanted to turn off life support.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A specialist at Great Ormond Street Hospital said his brain damage was irreversible.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The hospital where he’s being treated has decided to end his life support and his parents have made several unsuccessful legal challenges to that decision.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The parents of the terminally—ill baby, Charlie Gard, returned with lawyers to present new evidence of an experimental treatment in America they say that could help him.
BOB GARFIELD: The distraught parents fought the decision and went to court to keep their baby alive, a drama that captured the sympathy of a nation. But the saga did not stay on that side of the Atlantic. Offered false hope by an American doctor flogging his own treatment, as yet untested on humans in clinical trials, the family became the tool of right—wing American critics of Britain's single—payer National Health Service, who portrayed Charlie as a martyr to statist tyranny.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The 11—month—old baby who’s captured the world's attention, after essentially being sentenced to death.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Since when did international bureaucrats decide they have the right to make decisions for your child whom they’ve never met?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Since forever. That's all they do.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A super—important story, not just for Charlie Gard, most importantly, of course, but also for where we’re going in terms of our health system in the United States and who has the “right” to make these decisions.
BOB GARFIELD: After the parents lost their battle to have their son's final days at home, Charlie Gard died Friday in a children’s hospice. Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and a columnist at The Times of London, who wrote about the story on her blog, MelaniePhillips.com. Melanie, welcome to the show.
MELANIE PHILLIPS: Thank you very much, good to speak to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Infant Charlie had been granted US citizenship in order to come here for some sort of experiment treatment because his cause was taken up by conservative Americans, including the President of the United States, himself. Why was he such a convenient poster infant for their political positions?
MELANIE PHILLIPS: I presume this is connected to the great fights over repealing Obamacare. They seized upon this as what they thought of as an example of a child being murdered by state socialized medicine. What the American conservatives said that this appeared to be was a fight between the parents and the state. It wasn't. It was a fight between the parents, on the one hand, understandable as their position was, and medical ethics, on the other, arbitrated by the courts. And the poor parents were and are in a state of denial, which is understandable; it's very unfortunate. The kindest thing is to get them to acknowledge the reality, but because there was this enormous campaign coming from America telling them that they alone had the right to decide what should happen to this child, they were, obviously, persuaded or came to believe that the strength of this campaign would force the court to take their side. It made it much more hard for them to accept the terrible tragic reality of their child's condition and it meant that these court proceedings were protracted. And the effect of what they've done is certainly to prolong the agony of these parents and, possibly, even more horribly and unthinkably, to cause this dying child yet more pain and distress.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me read a couple of samples of the kind of rhetoric that was flying around the right—wing media. This is from a website called American Thinker. “Little Charlie Gard appears to be under a death sentence courtesy of the Great Ormond Street Hospital and the British Courts” in what it called “a totalitarian state” and referred to the almost inhuman indifference to the plight of the parents by the Great Ormond Street Hospital. You’re saying that the indifference to the parents’ grief and to the child's welfare does not fall on the health care system, it falls on the people who prolonged the child's life in pain.
MELANIE PHILLIPS: If you have people from the President of the United States downwards effectively telling these parents, you know, dig in your heels, it is your right and your right alone, and if those parents are already, because of their grief and distress, in a state of denial of the reality, then you have this grotesque situation that we’ve just had in which this poor dying child’s agony is being prolonged, the parents’ agony is being prolonged.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I should observe that you are not, yourself, a leftist firebrand. You are a conservative thinker who, in some cases, are, you know, very much simpatico with the very publications and websites that you are at the moment so infuriated with.
MELANIE PHILLIPS: I’m considered to be a conservative writer and many of these people on so many issues, you know, they and I actually share the same worldview. On this occasion, however, I could not believe what I was reading and hearing in the combination of absolute ignorance, ignorance of medical ethics, ignorance of the British system, ignorance of the British court system, coupled with the arrogance of telling Britain how to do its stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me how this broke through bedrock conservative principles to so appall you.
MELANIE PHILLIPS: The evidence was overwhelmingly against what these American writers were saying. All they had to do was look at the evidence, and it was quite clear to me that none of them had the faintest idea what they were talking about. None of them had actually looked at the evidence. None of them actually read the medical reports. None of them had done anything other than leaped to a conclusion because it was Britain and because they know that Britain has a National Health Service or their socialized medicine and because they are, as conservatives in America, locked in combat over the repeal of Obamacare. They leaped upon this case to illustrate their contention that socialized medical care kills children or kills patients and captures individual patients for the state. Now, this bears absolutely no relation to reality, whatsoever. It is simply ignorant and it is ideological.
I think that conservative commentators and others in America saw in this terrible tragic case an example that they could use in the domestic fight over Obamacare in order to show that socialized medicine was a killer.
BOB GARFIELD: The United States does not, as it turns out, have a monopoly on conservative media. On your side of the ocean, there is everything in the continuum, I guess, from The Times of London, for whom you write, and The Daily Mail. I wonder whether the right—wing media in the UK was more restrained, more thoughtful, more fact based, less hysterical than their counterparts over here.
MELANIE PHILLIPS: The conservative media in Britain behaved completely differently from the conservative commentators in America over this case. That's not to say there weren’t differences of opinion but there was nothing like the fury and the bitterness and the accusations being held in America, because in Britain it was seen as a genuine dilemma because no one in Britain is trying to show that the National Health Service is a killer in the way that American conservatives do. There are concerns about the National Health Service. I, myself, have concerns about the National Health Service. But the health issue is not the politically explosive issue that it is in America.
Another difference between America and Britain is that while we have, in Britain, especially among a Catholic community, a number of people who are very exorcised about the right to life issues — abortion and terminal care — we don't have anything like the politicized right—to—life movement that you have in America. And a proportion of this fury that was whipped up over this tragic case came from right—to—life activists who were using this not to make the political point about Obamacare, necessarily, but more to make the point that it was inconceivable to them that this child’s life support should be turned off. And that agenda has come to us from America, and this completely horrified me.
And, you know, I spend a lot of my time writing about the lies told by the left—wing media. That's where I'm coming from. And on this occasion, those things were being done by conservative writers and conservative thinkers and politicians on the right.
BOB GARFIELD: Melanie, think you very much.
MELANIE PHILLIPS: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times of London.
Melanie Phillips is horrified by the American right—wing antiabortion agenda that she sees seeping into British culture. She’s right to be worried. On next week’s show, Brooke examines the abortion issue here and asks how it came to be so freighted. Historian Jill Lepore.
JILL LEPORE: These issues have been shaped by people with nakedly self—serving partisan interests. The political intensity of it, that’s an artifice.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s next week on On the Media.
That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jon Hanrahan and Isabella Kulkarni. Special thanks to Andy Lancet of the WNYC Archives Department. And our show was edited, this week, by Executive Producer Katya Rogers.
Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.