How Charlie Gard became a cause célèbre for the US Christian right

“Charlie’s Army never sleeps”: the case of British child Charlie Gard and the growing power and global reach of American conservative activists and “pro-family” organisers.

Lara Whyte
25 July 2017

Parents of Charlie Gard speak to the media.

Parents of Charlie Gard speak to the media in London, before delivering the petition to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The private tragedy endured by the family of terminally-ill British child Charlie Gard has become a cause célèbre for conservative campaigners across Europe and especially the US. On Monday, his parents said they would end their legal battle to take him to America for experimental treatment. A global alliance of sympathisers and activists, calling themselves ‘#CharliesArmy’, live-tweeted the news to followers of the case around the world.

Charlie suffers from a rare genetic condition and has brain damage. He has been kept alive, on life support, at central London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). For five months his parents fought to take him to New York for trial therapy that they said could prolong his life. Specialists at GOSH disagreed. They’ve said it would not be in the child’s best interests, and that rather his life support should be discontinued.

The family had already lost battles in the UK, including at the High Court and the Supreme Court in London, as well as in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights. Throughout they have been joined by increasingly mobilised supporters with slogans like “Charlie’s Army never sleeps” and “Justice for Charlie”. Some conservative campaigners took up the case as an example of how states infringe on “parental rights” to make decisions for their children.

Great Ormond Street hospital.

The main entrance to the Great Ormond Street hospital in central London, where staff have received death threats over the Charlie Gard case. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“When parents do not agree about a child’s future treatment, it is standard legal process to ask the courts to make a decision,” says GOSH on a section of its website created to respond to questions about Charlie’s case. It says that parents “have parental responsibility,” but that “overriding control is by law vested in the court exercising its independent and objective judgment in the child’s best interests”.

Last week, GOSH informed London’s Metropolitan Police that people claiming to be supporters of the Gard family had threatened hospital staff. In a statement, GOSH chairman Mary McLeod condemned a “shocking and disgraceful tide of hostility and disturbance”. She said “staff have received abuse both in the street and online”, including death threats, and that other family members visiting their own sick children have also been disturbed.

The origin of the death threats remains unclear. But conservative campaigners including prominent US evangelicals have been loud and publicly involved in the case, organising online and offline protests.

Dear President Trump, Help #CharlieGard by Executive Order; Grant Charlie U.S. Citizenship!#CharliesArmy .@connie85yates .@DonaldJTrumpJr pic.twitter.com/IgbRXmye04

— Chanel Rion Sketches (@ChanelRion) 8 July 2017

Earlier this summer, a petition signed by more than half a million people urged the hospital “not to kill” Charlie, saying that choices about the child’s care “should remain where it belongs...with his loving parents. It is not the purview of the state or the hospital to make these decisions for his parents”.

This petition, presented to the government in early July, was posted on the right-wing campaigning website CitizenGo, which describes itself as a “community of active citizens who work together...to defend and promote life, family, and liberty”. The site, sometimes called a conservative counterpoint to Change.org, has also hosted petitions against transgender rights and gay marriage.

CitizenGo’s founder, Ignacio Arsuaga from Spain, is also a prominent member in international networks of “pro-family” groups which have been criticised for allegedly unleashing “torrent of destructive anti-choice and anti-LGBT legislation, persecution and violence around the world”. Arsuaga is on the board of directors of the World Congress of Families, a controversial US-headquartered organisation with global reach.

Mario Velasco, a CitizenGo volunteer and the group’s UK spokesperson, said it hadn’t contacted the Gard family before launching the petition. It was inspired by initial media coverage of the legal battle and was written by one of their US campaigners Caroline Craddock, who describes herself on Twitter as a “wife, mommy, writer, follower of Christ”. Velasco said: “It’s a very important moral issue for us -- the possibility of the state taking over from the family when it comes to medical treatment or decisions”.

The petition was then picked up by an organisation called Americans United for Life (AUL), which put their significant weight behind it. AUL calls itself as “the legal architect of the pro-life movement”. Their reach extends across the conservative states that elected President Trump last year, and deep into the White House itself. Velasco said CitizenGo was “very grateful to count on them and all of their supporters.”

AUL’s former chairwoman Charmaine Yoest is now Trump’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Yoest actively supported Trump during his campaign after he pledged to halt federal funding for Planned Parenthood and appointed a Supreme Court justice open to overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established abortion as a constitutional right.

The Charlie Gard petition is the biggest CitizenGo has ever hosted. “The response has been amazing,” said Velasco. Gregary Katz, the group’s US campaigns director, added: “We have people [signing] from Cambodia, Yemen, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and all over the world. For the exception of North Korea and Antarctica, if you name a country, I bet there is at least one signer".

Rev Patrick Mahoney (left) alongside the parents of Charlie Gard.

Rev Patrick Mahoney (left) speaks to the media alongside the parents of Charlie Gard, before delivering the petition. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire. All rights reserved.

Offline, a who’s who of the US Evangelical right have attended court hearings in London and “prayer-protests” organised by CitizenGo -- including Catherine Glenn Forester (current CEO of Americans United for Life), Patrick Mahoney, (head of the Christian Defence Coalition), and Bobby Schindler, a publicity-loving full-time pro-life and anti-euthanasia advocate.

All three have accused the London hospital keeping Charlie alive of trying to kill him. They have brought a heavy dose of theatre to their campaigns too: creating the blue heart icon for supporters to rally around, urging people to bring blue balloons and stuffed monkey teddy bears to protests, and organising evening candlelight vigils outside the UK High Court.

Velasco said the Gard petition was categorised as a “global” priority, and was translated into seven languages (including Spanish, Portuguese and Polish). He said around 43% of signatures are on the English-language version -- most from America, followed by the UK, Italy, and Brazil.

This disproportionate US involvement is also reflected in Twitter activity around the Charlie Gard case. An analysis of 127,000 tweets in English over the last three months, using proprietary social analytic software, suggests that almost 60% were from Twitter users from the US, compared to 10% from the UK. More than 1 out of 3 of these tweets used the hashtag #Charliesfight.

CitizenGo does not make public the full names and locations of signatories. Several women writing on Mumsnet website have claimed that their signatures were falsely added to the petition when in fact they did not sign it.

On Monday Charlie’s parents thanked signatories of the CitizenGo petition. They said they took the results of a new MRI scan into account, in making the decision to end their legal battle, and that the length of court proceedings had forced their hand.

The parents have appealed for privacy in their final days with their son. Meanwhile, conservative campaigners and some of the family’s supporters remain loudly defiant, blaming court procedures for “taking so much time that Charlie’s brain deteriorated”. At CitizenGo, Velasco said: “We will make sure we keep fighting for life all around the globe. This fight cannot be won alone”.

“We respect the decision of the parents and believe they would not have been forced to take it if the state had not stepped on their right to choose the best treatment for their child,” said Velasco. He added: the “fight for family, life and freedom” requires the “time and effort of millions of people… we are very proud to be on their side, allowing them to question their politicians and different powers, every time these decide to act against their values”.

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