VATICAN CITY — Stepping into a tumultuous legal battle involving a U.K. couple’s push for a say in the treatment and death of their terminally ill son, Pope Francis has offered his prayers for the child and asked that his parents’ wishes be respected.
“The Holy Father follows with affection and emotion the story of Charlie Gard and expresses his own closeness to his parents,” read a July 2 statement issued by Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.
“He prays for them, wishing that their desire to accompany and care for their own child to the end will be respected.”
The statement was made as the tense legal battle between Gard’s parents and the U.K. officials regarding how and when he will die comes to an end.
At just 11 months, Gard suffers from a rare degenerative brain disease called infantile onset encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, or MDDS.
With only 16 known cases in the world, the disease causes extensive brain damage. While Charlie Gard does have some brain function, he requires assistance to breathe, has periodic seizures, and is not expected to develop sophisticated mental abilities without treatment.
Gard’s parents were able to raise nearly $2 million in order to take him to the United States for an experimental treatment. Some doctors have been skeptical about the results; however, other patients currently undergoing the treatment have shown significant improvement.
But despite having the funds for the treatment, U.K. courts have ruled against the possibility, arguing that further treatment would cause harm to Gard. In addition, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that the Great Ormond Street Hospital, where the infant is staying, is not required to keep him on life support.
When his parents asked to take their son home to die, their request was denied. Gard’s life support machines were to be turned off Friday, but the courts allowed the parents to have more time with their child before his death.
Pope Francis’ statement follows an earlier response to the case from the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who, while arguing for the defense of life at all stages, including during illness, appeared sympathetic to the court’s ruling, saying that “aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or the family” must be avoided.
Not only did the Pope’s statement appear to counter the position previously voiced by Archbishop Paglia, but on Friday, the day the infant’s life support was initially scheduled to be disconnected, he used his Twitter account to send a clear pro-life message in the infant’s favor.
Reading “To defend human life, above all when it is wounded by illness, is a duty of love that God entrusts to all,” the tweet was shared by Burke, who added the hashtag “#CharlieGard,” clearly indicating that the Pope’s tweet was in reference to the infant.
As Gard’s parents continue to spend the remaining time with their son, public debate on the case continues to unfurl, with citizens protesting outside U.K. parliament and elsewhere (see more photos by Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin).