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Fresh bones

A troubling case in Britain underscores the bureaucratic evil of “futile” care

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At the second Republican debate on Sept. 27 at the Reagan Presidential Library, I sat stage right and thought about Hubert Humphrey. The ­liberal Minnesotan and former U.S. vice president once said “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

At the debate, the seven candidates onstage represented seven possible futures in the fight for life. But only two—former vice president Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—expanded beyond abortion the question of how the American government treats the most vulnerable among us.

Pence mentioned the “aged and infirm.” Christie said, “If you’re pro-life, you have to be pro-life for the entire life, not just the nine months in the womb.” Both comments resonated with me because I had been ­following the case of Sudiksha Thirumalesh.

A 19-year-old British woman from a Christian family, Thirumalesh suffered from chronic muscle weakness and hearing loss. Because of kidney damage, she also needed regular dialysis. She and her parents wanted to seek treatment in Canada, but the British hospital where she was a patient asked a court to approve a plan for palliative care only—a plan that would lead to kidney failure and death within days.

Thirumalesh’s family fought the court’s decision but lost. She died on Sept. 12 after doctors withdrew treatment. Her case follows three others in Great Britain, all involving children. One was the 2017 case of Charlie Gard, a 1-year-old who suffered from a rare mitochondrial disorder. Doctors said treating Charlie was futile. Even though his parents had located an American ­hospital that agreed to treat Charlie, a court ruled that, no, the child had to die. He did, on July 28, 2017.

Sudiksha Thirumalesh said she wanted to “die trying to live.” I am especially troubled that she wasn’t a child. At 19, she could speak and express her wishes right up until the moment of her death. Legal arguments in her case aligned with what seems to be maturing case law in Britain: That parents are causing harm by allowing their children to continue treatment—that death is in the child’s best interests because it ends his or her suffering.

But it isn’t only patients’ suffering some healthcare professionals are worried about. A 2022 study of intensive care unit nurses concluded that “futile care at the end of life can cause harm to the patient and the moral conflict of the healthcare team.” A 2016 meta-analysis of futile care in the Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine noted that the “most deleterious consequences” for providing futile care are “heavy financial burdens on families, healthcare systems, and societies, and moral distress, job burnout, job dissatisfaction, and increased turnover among healthcare ­professionals.”

While those things may be true temporally, what’s true eternally is the inherent value of every human life.

I was talking with my colleague, WORLD executive news editor Lynde Langdon, who has spent a lot of time overseas. She’s noticed that because many less-developed cultures tend to prize family bonds above all else, they revere their elderly and nurture their sick and disabled until their natural end. But in America and other Western democracies, once people stop “contributing,” they become a liability, a “drain on limited resources,” like an unnecessary line item in an unfavorable spreadsheet.

Deaths like Thirumalesh’s should shock us but are instead becoming common, buried under the fresh dirt of the churning news cycle as quickly and surely as grave dirt buries fresh bones. As we head into a pitched campaign season, I will, as always, be looking for a pro-life candidate. But I will also be looking for one who won’t bury these issues—one who pledges to protect the unborn and those suffering in Humphrey’s “shadows of life.”

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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