Sarah Murnaghan v. the Letter of the Law

A question of ethics, I present to you:

If you saw a person dying, and you had the chance to save them, would you make the effort to save their life? Most of us would, for it is the morally right thing to do. What if in order to save that person’s life you had to act against a law? I can still say that most of us would (I do have a little bit of hope in humanity). However, if your name was Kathleen Sebelius and the person in question was Sarah Murnaghan, you probably are going to answer no to that question.

Allow me to explain. Sarah Murnaghan is an adorable ten year old girl who is suffering from cystic fibrosis. This disease is affecting her lungs, and if she does not receive a lung transplant, she will die. However, there is a problem. Sarah is ten, and in order to receive an adult lung transplant (for there are no child lungs available for transplant), she must be twelve years old. That’s not good news for a girl who only has only a few weeks left to live. Congressman Lou Barletta chose to appeal the case to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in attempt to get permission for an adult lung transplant for Sarah. Instead of waiving the age requirement, Sebelius instead denied the appeal. Her rationale behind her decision was that “The medical evidence and the transplant doctors who are making the rule [of 12 years as the minimum age to receive an adult lung transplant] …that it’s based on the survivability [chances].” According to Sebelius, because medical doctors have declared that it is not safe to insert a pair of adult lungs into a child under 12 years of age, 10 year old Sarah should not receive an adult set of lungs via transplant.

(At this point, I would like to interject and say that if she does receive the lung transplant, it definitely can be a risk to the girl but she has a chance to live. If she doesn’t receive the transplant, she dies. If Kathleen Sebelius is truly looking out for Sarah’s health, then she would give her the transplant, for with the transplant comes a chance of her survival.)

Nevertheless, this situation brings up an age old debate: Should a person who is under a law act beside the letter of the law? In other words, is there ever a case where a person is allowed to act contrary to what the law states? St. Thomas Aquinas tackled this topic in his “Treatise on Law.” He believed that law should be designed for the common good of man. However, Aquinas makes this provision in his treatise, that “if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed.” In other words, if by adhering to laws already set in place, citizens were to be harmed in any way, the law should not be observed in that specific case.

I am not talking about civil disobedience. That is a different matter (for a different article). I am addressing the legalistic mindset which holds that the letter of the law must be observed at all times in all cases, without exception. This is wrong. The creators of the mandate that set the minimum age for an adult lung transplant to be 12 wrote that mandate for the safety and wellbeing of children. Even Kathleen Sebelius admitted that. Therefore, the aim of that statute is the safety and wellbeing of children. In Sarah Murnaghan’s case, the only way the aim of the statute could be upheld is if an exception is made to the letter of the law for Sarah.

Obeying the written law is crucial for a society to be held together, but when enforcing the law, the motive of the lawgiver must be taken into account more than his very words. This is what happened when a federal judge overturned Sebelius decision to deny Sarah’s lung transplant and forced Sebelius to make an exception in the rule for Sarah. This case of Sarah Murnaghan versus Kathleen Sebelius and the letter of the law shows that sometimes there are cases in which those who are under the law may act beside the letter of the law. Lives like Sarah Murnaghan may depend on it.

Follow Caleb Casto on Twitter @Caleb_Casto

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