The story of Alfie Evans is as sad as it gets. The 23-month-old baby has been suffering from a degenerative neurological condition that doctors at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool say is incurable.
His ventilator was turned off on Monday evening, and his medical team are waiting for him to die. As I write he has not done so, but if the doctors are correct, which I suppose they are, it won’t be long.
Alfie’s parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, have desperately argued that he should be flown to Rome on an Italian government air ambulance to receive treatment, or at any rate palliative care, in a Vatican-owned hospital. This request was turned down by a High Court judge two days ago.
This picture showing Alfie, with his father sleeping in the background, was posted on Facebook last night
Lawyers appeared for the parents yesterday at the Court of Appeal, which last night upheld Mr Justice Hayden’s ruling that Alfie cannot fly to Italy.
So who is right — the doctors and the judges on the one hand, or the parents on the other, backed by Pope Francis, who has given them support since he met Tom Evans in Rome last week?
As is often the case with complex moral problems, there is no easy answer. But I believe the parents’ desire for their son to be flown to Rome should have been respected by the doctors and Mr Justice Hayden, even if there is very little chance of Alfie living much longer.
Who is right — the doctors and the judges on the one hand, or the parents and their supporters on the other, backed by Pope Francis?
What we have in this tragic case is a clash between the duty of the state or its representatives to safeguard the weak and vulnerable, and the rights of parents to make life-and-death decisions regarding their child.
The stand-off can also be expressed as a conflict between people who look at the problem in a secular way and those (the parents, their many supporters and the Pope) who see it in religious, and specifically Christian, terms.
Of course, I don’t doubt the judge is a decent man wrestling with a ghastly dilemma, or that Alfie’s doctors have genuinely done their best to give him all the care they could for as long as it made sense in their minds to do so.
Tom Evans, Alfie’s father, pictured speaking to supporters outside the Liverpool hospital last night
Nor do I challenge the general principle that the state, in the person of a judge, should sometimes be expected to make decisions on behalf of babies or children too young, or too ill, to speak for themselves.
If, in this case, Alfie’s parents had recklessly argued that their baby be removed from hospital without being able to offer any assurances as to his future care, then it would have been right to overrule them.
But that wasn’t what happened. They appear to be loving people. (Their intention, reported yesterday, to pursue private prosecutions against three doctors for ‘conspiracy to murder’ sounds excessive, but is perhaps understandable in the circumstances.)
Moreover, the Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome — a respectable medical institution — has offered to try to treat Alfie.
Indeed, its head, Mariella Enoc, travelled to Liverpool a few days ago to make a last-ditch appeal to have Alfie transferred. She presumably came to an informed view that he could be flown to Rome without undue suffering.
Why not heed her request? Even if there is only a small sliver of hope, it is surely legitimate for the parents to seize it, and arguably narrow-minded, even officious, Liverpool doctors should not stand in their way.
Supporters of Alfie Evans’s parents are pictured gathering outside the hospital yesterday
Doctors are not gods. It is possible, though perhaps not likely, that those at Alder Hey are mistaken — or that the medical team in Rome has particular skills or knowledge of cures which they lack.
Furthermore, on the subject of the non-divinity of the medical fraternity, I should mention that between 1988 and 1995 (which is not long ago) Alder Hey Hospital was a kind of grisly factory where the unauthorised removal, retention and disposal of hundreds of children’s body parts and organs was commonplace.
I mention this not to impugn the dedicated medics who have been treating Alfie. They are obviously wholly innocent of those gruesome practices. No, my point is simply to reiterate that, like the rest of us, doctors are not flawless, Olympian figures.
Medics have given the boy some oxygen and water but Mr Evans said his son (pictured) will need further urgent medical assistance if he is to survive the day
So I think Mr Justice Hayden was wrong not to allow Alfie one last chance with a new medical team in Rome who are eager to treat him. He may reasonably suspect that there is little prospect of success, but unless he is certain, which he cannot be, he should have let Alfie fly to Italy.
Why did he make the decision he did? Because, like many of his background, he is apt to place excessive reliance on the professional judgment of the home-grown experts in front of him. And also because, like them, he evidently views the moral problem entirely through secular eyes.
The Pope’s perspective — and that of most Christians — is different. Christians believe that life is unspeakably precious. It must be defended and fought for where there is any hope at all, however tiny.
The family of terminally ill toddler Alfie Evans have released pictures of the little boy clinging to life in his mother Kate’s arms
That is why the Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion. It puts the life of the unborn child above all considerations except, in dire circumstances, the life of the mother.
Mr Justice Hayden, I’m sure, also regards life as precious. Most of us do. It is a question of degree. Pope Francis is prepared to fight on a bit further, and one reason he does so is that, unlike the secular world, he believes in miracles.
It follows from what I’ve said that I think the judge was mistaken in lambasting the pro-life activists who have been advising Alfie’s parents. They are entitled to their views, though if the crowd demonstrating outside the hospital have threatened doctors, they shouldn’t have done so.
The judge was, I believe, also at fault in picking on Pavel Stroilov, who works for the Christian Legal Centre, describing him as a ‘fanatical and deluded young man’. One newspaper even tried to discredit him by revealing that he has written a book described in an academic journal as ‘devoid of any scholarly analysis’.
So what? I know nothing about Stroilov other than what I have read. He may be decent. Or he may be a charlatan. The validity of Alfie’s parents’ case shouldn’t be judged by the character of one of their supporters.
Mr Justice Hayden seemingly dislikes what he regards as the religious fundamentalism of these people. But actually they believe, in essence, what the Pope and hundreds of millions of Christians believe.
Alfie’s case recalls that of Charlie Gard, the little boy who died in a hospice last year after a High Court judge had ordered, again on expert medical advice, that all treatment be withdrawn. Charlie’s parents were not even allowed to have him at home during his last few days.
That there will be other similar instances can’t be doubted. Medical advances mean that very sick children can be kept alive longer than would have been the case 20 or even ten years ago. Moral conundrums arise where none would have once existed.
On one side there is secular officialdom, compassionate to be sure, but also rigid and overmighty. On the other side, there are parents clutching at straws because they love their children more than words can say, and the Christians who stand behind them. I know where my heart lies.