This essay will make an ethical case for why a guardian can never choose to terminate the life of a person under his protection, for whatever reason and under whatever circumstances. Nor can a guardian allow the “guarded” to commit acts detrimental to life, health, and moral integrity.
Nobody who is “guarded” can make an intelligent, informed, fully responsible decision to refuse medical treatment or to act in any manner to the detriment of his own life. To illustrate, if an adult wished to smoke cigarettes and thus act to the detriment of his own life, his action would be of questionable morality, but legal and within the scope of his natural rights. It should be both immoral and illegal for a child to smoke cigarettes.
A child’s guardian, being entrusted with the child’s survival for a certain period of time, must ensure that the child commits only acts clearly beneficial to his life or at least harmless thereto. To allow the child to smoke (or to starve himself), even when the child explicitly states that he wishes to commit such acts, is gross negligence and contradicts entirely the very purpose of guardianship.
This principle is not unique to children, but rather applies to everyone over whom guardianship exists, as its roots are not contained in the age of the “guarded,” but rather in their incapacity to adequately use their rational faculties in all things.
The guardian must allow the guarded to use their rational faculties where they have shown clear capacity to do so (i.e. where they make autonomous decisions benefiting their lives) and must intervene with the decisions of the “guarded” where they have shown an incapacity to reason (i.e. where they either make detrimental decisions or fail to make beneficial ones). Here, beneficial decisions are defined as those prolonging an individual’s life, and detrimental ones as those curtailing it, with such definitions stemming from the fact that life is the ultimate value and, without life, no further pursuit of values is possible.
If a guardian is either unable or unwilling to fulfill his obligations, he should renounce his role and facilitate a successful transfer of guardianship to somebody else. In the Terri Schiavo case, for example, an incompetent and malicious guardian was unwilling to abdicate in favor of competent and caring guardians, the Schindlers. Due to ulterior motives, moral degeneracy, or both, he had betrayed his promise (implicit in guardianship) to only act to prolong Terri’s life.