The plight of an Orthodox Jewish child, whose life physicians in the U.K. are campaigning to end, appears to pose no threat to us here in the U.S. But appearances are deceiving.
Odious as it sounds, one ocean may not be enough to prevent the European model of placing the dictates of the super-state ahead of the wishes of parents. Oddly, our refusal so far to ratify a U.N. treaty on the rights of children might be critical to the lives of all future children in the U.S.
Alta Fixsler is a Jewish Israeli citizen residing in the U.K. who was sadly born with a severe brain condition. Her parents have tried every remedy available for her, and so far, they have had no success. The doctors at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital have petitioned the government to cease treating her, remove her from life support, and let her die. They have started this petition process against the wishes of her mother and father and against the wishes of the nation she is a citizen of, Israel, which has offered to provide for her free care in two different Israeli hospitals.
At a trial in London in May, physicians argued that it was visually obvious that Alta was suffering. Alta’s father insisted that having raised her with his wife from birth, he knew that she was not reacting in pain. Medical experts in the U.S. who reviewed Alta’s brain scans agreed that she was suffering no pain at all.
Ultimately the judge said while that he was not fully convinced that the child was suffering, he nevertheless felt that he should go with the U.K. medical professionals. Alta, having no quality of life, should not have to suffer. Ending her life would be in her best interest.
As far as moving her to Israel, Justice MacDonald bizarrely said he would have to assess the safety risk because of the recent exchange between Hamas and Israel! Why take the risk when we could just end her life?
Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer obtained a U.S. visa for Alta (whose father is a U.S. citizen), as well as appealed to the U.K. Health Minister, opening a second treatment option. So far, to no avail.
It is impossible to view this as a battle about the life of an individual little girl. Justice MacDonald rejected the argument that the parents’ religious rights automatically gave them the right to make vital decisions for their daughter, stating that while her parents might espouse certain positions, it could not be assumed that their daughter concurred. In other words, first, even absent conditions of negligence or incompetence, the State’s determination of the best interests of a child are superior to those of parents, even to decide that a person should die.
Second, while parents have a right (at the moment?) to pass along values and religious beliefs to their children, those cannot be assumed a priori to be important to the “real” person who will later emerge into adulthood. Parental instruction, according to the judge, contributes a tolerable, if quaint, add-on to the core personality, but does not shape the essence of the child.
In the U.S., the law is different. Where there is no showing of unfitness — and there was certainly none in this case — parent’s wishes should be controlling. Long ago this became the law in the United States. Going back a century to Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925 the law in the U.S. is clear — parents get to make all reasonable decisions and the states should help parents decide.
Secondly, the danger of governmental regulation designed to generally help children, can deeply impede the religious freedom of parents and children. Parents ought to have more rights in the area of the faith of their children than in other areas, even when it might impact other long-term issues. Yoder v. Wisconsin made this the law in America in 1973.
Does this mean that we in the U.S. are all beyond the reach of the uber-state? Hardly. That vast ocean that separates us from Europe can be reduced to a small puddle when the mood of the public or the Supreme Court changes.
The central idea that the American Founders had — that the family is a central unit and is deserving of important protection, and even more so when it is part of a religious tradition — is a valuable idea that is easily eroded. If not defended, family relationships will become mere friendships — a quaint idea, but with no legal significance. Indeed, that is exactly what has happened in Europe.
Don’t look to the U.N. to provide a universal standard to which all can subscribe, even where it appears that this was precisely what it had in mind.
In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was offered for signatures. The treaty meticulously spelled out the way children ought to be helped by society, and which practices (e.g. child slavery) had to be banned. It has since been signed and ratified by 196 nations. The U.S. contributed to its drafting and signed it, but then never ratified it. Then-Senator Barack Obama called this an embarrassment, but as president, never submitted it to the Senate for approval as required by the Constitution.
Perhaps with good reason. It has since been used to create a new social order. A Russian attempt to include language on parental rights was shot down. The U.K. has been targeted for not doing enough to decrease child poverty (read: to bring about wealth redistribution) and for providing insufficient outlets for youth to express their opinions. Israel, always a favorite U.N. target, was upbraided for defensive actions against Hamas, because children were impacted by military bombardment.
What might concern us most are two sections towards the beginning. Article 3.1 states that in all actions by social service agencies, public and private, “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Article 3.2 stipulates that “States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary … taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents.”
Well intended, the language nonetheless makes the government the final arbiters of the best interests of the child, while only giving parents a vote, but never a veto. Alta Fixsler is but the latest victim. The U.S. should not sign because the U.S. believes in the rights of the parents and also the rights of the state and also the rights of the child. This triangle of values is unique to the U.S. and should remain in place.
Meanwhile, those of us who pray for Alta Fixsler need also pray for the next generations of children, to ensure that they do not become the vassals of state tyranny. We should do so with thanks to G-d that we recognize that their best interests are secured not by U.N. treaties, but by the rights found in the great Judeo-Christian legacy.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a Professor of Law at Emory University and the Berman Projects Director in its Center for the Study of Law and Religion.