Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Medicine and the Media

How a fight for Charlie Gard became a fight against the state

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 01 August 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j3675
  1. Richard Hurley, features and debates editor
  1. The BMJ
  1. rhurley{at}

Populists, religionists, and those opposed to state intervention in healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic sought influence among an emotional public, writes Richard Hurley

“Manslaughter”—the Daily Mail’s lead story was on a different subject but its headline was juxtaposed with an old photograph showing Charlie Gard at 2 weeks of age. “As judge rules Charlie must die in hospice, parents release new picture and say, ‘We’ve been denied our final wish.’”

Later that day the critically ill baby, who had been at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London for the past eight months, died after doctors withdrew mechanical ventilation and tube feeding.

Months of conflict between Charlie’s parents and his doctors, played out in a series of high profile court cases, defined his brief but highly medicalised and uniquely publicised life.

Best interests

The doctors treating Charlie thought that his condition was in its final stage and that they were not serving his best interests by keeping him alive. The parents’ desperation, and a chimeric hope given by a specialist offering experimental nucleoside treatment in the United States, was rocket fuel for the tabloids. They described the potential intervention as “pioneering” and “life saving”—despite it having never been tried in a patient with Charlie’s form of the condition.

Millions of people followed Charlie’s plight—there was international media coverage, thousands of social media supporters calling themselves “Charlie’s army,” petitions with thousands of signatories, and interjections from Theresa May, the pope, and Donald Trump.

As far right radio hosts and celebrity columnists shared their thoughts, Charlie became the topic of intense scrutiny and comment—on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US, where Republicans have been trying to keep their promise of scrapping the Affordable Care Act, senator Ted Cruz tweeted three weeks ago, “No hospital, no gov’t has the …

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