The headline is arresting. Baby Isaiah given 3 days to live by government. Baby Isaiah’s parents want the Canadian government to continue their child on life support. If the government withdraws life support, does this violate the child’s unalienable right to life?

Unalienable rights have to do with inherent natural obligations which human beings, as they come from the hand of God, are obliged to respect. What people should do with the work of human hands, e.g., with technologies that improve upon their natural capacities, may involve issues of conscience. But not all such issues have to do with respect for unalienable rights. The requirements of conscience go beyond the minimal requirements of the natural law to encompass those that arise from the law of love. As Christ made clear, (Matthew 5: 40-41) there’s a difference between doing what the law requires and going the extra mile simply because that’s the kind of help you’d want someone to give you if you were in need of it.

The parents in this case have a natural obligation to do all that they can to preserve the life of their child. Others are obliged to respect actions they take pursuant to this obligation so long as they do not otherwise violate the natural law which is the basis of such obligations. They may not, for example, kill someone else’s child to save theirs. But if someone else’s child is drowning, and they know how to swim, they will rightly feel obliged by the rule of conscience (do unto others as you would have others do unto you) to use their acquired skill to save the child. But their liberty, which is an unalienable right, means that they may refrain from helping if, in their own judgment, doing so would forfeit their own lives (leaving their own children without care) or otherwise interfere with the fulfillment of their own natural obligations.

What applies to the use of humanly acquired capacities logically also applies to the use of any medium of exchange that represents their value. Individuals may not, therefore, be compelled to use their money in ways that, in their own judgment, will endanger their lives or otherwise interfere with the fulfillment of their own natural obligations. Logically, what they are not obliged to do as individuals, they are not obliged to do when they act in community with other individuals endowed with the same unalienable right to liberty.

All this means that the parents of Baby Isaiah are not entitled to demand that public money be spent to keep their child on mechanical life support. The community acting at some level of government may decide to do so, but that decision is properly subject to legislation and adjudication by the organs of government charged with carrying out those functions on behalf of the community.

Though often confused in public discussion, this case is not substantially the same as that of someone like Terri Schiavo. In that case a judge, claiming to exercise legitimate government power, issued an order that interfered with actions her parents sought to perform pursuant to their natural obligation to preserve the life of their child. The judge’s order put the community in the position of killing Terri Schiavo based on the judgment of an individual (her husband) whose authority to exercise that judgment (based on their marital relationship) could not supersede that of the parents. In the natural course of things, all human beings are born in a helpless condition requiring that they be sheltered and fed by others. By the law of nature, the parents are the first ones obliged to provide this care. The fact that Schiavo’s husband abrogated his sworn obligation to care for his wife (in sickness and in health) did not in any way relieve her parents of this obligation. Indeed, on account of his abrogation, and their child’s helpless condition, they rightly felt the full weight of the obligation (which marriage had, for the most part alleviated) fall once more upon their shoulders. Therefore the court’s order did what no human power can have the right to do. It interfered with their performance of the natural duty assigned to them by their Creator. It violated the unalienable right arising from the natural bond that impels parents to care for their children throughout their lives (and vice versa.)

Taken together, the cases of Terri Schiavo and Baby Isaiah illustrate the substance of the natural obligations and rights arising from the fundamental family tie, as well as the nature and limits of the public’s obligations in regard to them. The public is obliged to respect the natural right of individuals acting on their familial obligations, as Terri’s parents were doing. The judge in her case violated their unalienable right. The Constitutions of Florida and the United States both demanded respect for unalienable rights. All public officials sworn to uphold the provisions of those constitutions were derelict in their sworn duty to defend it. On the other hand, a judge or legislative body does not violate natural right when exercising the community’s liberty to give or withdraw its help (or the help made possible by public funds) based on a judgment about how the expenditure involved affects the well being of the whole community for which, as representatives of its sovereign power, they are responsible.

Both these cases offer a clear warning against extending the sphere of government power in ways that conflict with or exclude the possibility of responsible individual choice in response to natural obligation. Pervasive government control of access to health care inevitably does so. It puts in the hands of government officials a power over life and death decisions better left to the conscience of individuals. By avoiding government control (even when it’s intended to be helpful) officials will be given less occasion to violate individual natural rights, and individuals will not be encouraged to develop a false sense of entitlement that ignores the sovereign liberty of the people as a whole.

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