There was never going to be a happy ending to the story of Alfie Evans, the 23-month-old boy treated at Alder Hey hospital, Liverpool, for an undiagnosed neurological condition that destroyed his brain. But somehow the British establishment has contrived to make a tragic situation worse – to the point where large swathes of European and American public opinion are convinced that this terminally ill child and his parents have been the victims of a grotesque injustice.
Whether that is the case will remain a matter of opinion: the medical and ethical questions raised by Alfie’s plight are not easily resolved. Alder Hey’s specialists were quite certain that there was no hope of saving him. On Monday night, despite frantic appeals from his young parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, the hospital was granted the legal right to turn off his ventilation.
Alfie’s mother and father knew that he had no long-term prospects of survival. But they didn’t think that his existence should be terminated according to a hospital timetable. The doctors at Alder Hey, meanwhile, were not willing to prolong the life of an effectively brain-dead child. Fair enough, you may think – but it was their apparent determination to turn off his life support that many observers found disturbing.
And so we found ourselves this week in an extraordinary situation. The Italian government granted Alfie Evans Italian citizenship so he could be flown to a Catholic hospital in Rome that was eager to take him (though it was under no illusions that it could cure him). Tom and Kate desperately wanted this to happen; the High Court blocked it.
As I say, the questions raised are complex. Tom Evans is a Catholic, yet the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales felt unable to offer him guidance or anything more than lukewarm moral support. Indeed, their characteristically evasive statement last week seemed to back Alder Hey hospital and oppose moving Alfie to Rome.
Enter – unexpectedly and most inconveniently for Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales – Pope Francis. No sooner had the English bishops finished their throat-clearing than Mr Evans was in a private audience with the Supreme Pontiff, who gave him his unequivocal blessing.
The reaction from Francis’s liberal cheerleaders? Virtual silence. As Adrian Vermeule, professor of constitutional law at Harvard, tweeted: ‘How odd. @Pontifex has spoken powerfully and acted forcefully on behalf of Alfie Evans. Yet many of his usual self-appointed interpreters are silent.’
Whether Alfie’s more vociferous supporters helped his case is another matter. Staff at Alder Hey say they have been intimidated by some members of ‘Alfie’s Army’, pro-lifers who apparently regard the removal of ventilation as judicial execution, pure and simple.
That is surely an over-simplification, though the fact that Alfie continued breathing unassisted afterwards should certainly give us pause for thought – as should his father’s claim that doctors ‘left him for six hours without food, water and oxygen’.
By the time you read this, poor Alfie may have died. But that tragic event should certainly not be the end of the matter. However intricate the dilemmas it created, they have not been properly debated. Let me finish with a few questions.
• Why were the High Court and the hospital so determined to stop Alfie’s parents flying him to Rome – and even reluctant to send him back home to die? The argument that any move was not in his best interests doesn’t make sense when you consider what the hospital did to him instead. We’re not talking here about Jehovah’s Witnesses who are trying to deny their child a life-saving blood transfusion. Isn’t this a classic example of 21st-century judicial overreach, in which parents’ rights are merely leased out by the state?
• Why did Mr Justice Hayden, the High Court judge who blocked the parents from removing Alfie from hospital, spend so much time attacking aspects of their campaign? No doubt the cause did attract people with unfashionable and even bigoted views. They may, as the judge claimed, have caused trouble at the hospital and given some bad advice – but Tom and Kate’s request to fly their child to Rome seems perfectly reasonable. The Italian government did not grant Alfie citizenship and offer to send a jet for him because it had been ear-bashed by Christian fundamentalists.
• Why was so much British media coverage of the Alfie Evans story either cursory or partisan? The Times‘s news reports on Wednesday focussed obsessively on the aforementioned ‘fundamentalists’. One wouldn’t have guessed from reading them that the case was arousing such concern in Europe and America.
• Why did the Italian government, Polish president Andrzej Duda and the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, feel it necessary to risk a diplomatic incident by expressing their disquiet at what was happening in Liverpool? Because they are Catholics? That doesn’t quite work because, see above, the Catholic Church in this country (and especially the Archdiocese of Liverpool) didn’t feel moved to say anything much. Meanwhile, the Italian public – which doesn’t spend much time in church these days – is horrified by the apparent hurry to end Alfie’s life.
Here’s a possible explanation. Many Christians abroad, both practising and nominal, have long thought of the Low Countries and Scandinavia as places where secularists feel free to end lives in accordance with their own cold-blooded ethics. But they didn’t associate this country with that strain of post-Christian utilitarianism. Although Alfie’s death sentence may have been delivered by his illness, the meticulous curtailment of his life strikes them as not just sinister but also un-British.
Are they right or are they wrong? We don’t seem especially interested in the answer. And that, alas, strikes me as utterly typical of modern Britain.