So, Tom Evans, Alfie Evans’ father, seems to have conceded defeat after the Court of Appeal ruled that he could not take his child to Italy, where a hospital has agreed to do its best to treat him. He told reporters today:
“We got rejected yesterday to go to Italy unfortunately. We could take it further but would it be the right thing to do? So what we do today is have a meeting with the doctors at Alder Hey and we now start asking to go home…it’s all about getting him home”.
Will that do for those who know better than the parents what they should be doing to help their son? Yesterday, Lord Justice McFarlane, head of the Court of Appeal judges, said Alfie’s parents were trying to take “one last chance”. But he said there was no chance of the couple’s challenge succeeding and that Alfie was “in the middle” of a palliative care plan. In other words, the Court and doctors at Alder Hey hospital have decided that Alfie should die painlessly with an organised palliative care plan and so the judges are going to make sure that they get their way. And certainly they are not going to give way to a bunch of pro-lifers, some of whom are funding the parents’ legal costs and who explicitly describe themselves as Christian.
It’s customary in these cases to say that everyone is motivated by concern for the best interests of the child, particularly the medical staff at Alder Hey hospital and that the judges are able to decide impartially what really is best for the child, unclouded by the understandable emotions of Alfie’s parents.
But what I really feel is incomprehension at the position being taken by the judges, still less by the phalanx of female pundits lining up to warn Alfie’s parents that they are misguided to wish to prolong his life against the best medical advice and moreover are being used by – indrawn breath – groups with a pro-life agenda to advance their causes, which include opposition to abortion and assisted dying. Pope Francis’ support for Alfie’s parents does not help to endear the cause to these pundits, ever alert for anything pertaining to Catholic ethics creeping into British public life. Damian Thompson has already made the point in a brilliant article on this site that the British utilitarian view is regarded with astonishment in other parts of Europe. But I share their bafflement.
Let me say at the outset, I do not think that the doctors would be acting immorally in allowing Alfie Evans to die naturally – my view of these things is pretty well of the “harm not thyself/yet shouldst not strive officiously to stay alive” sort.
But ask yourselves: what is the worst that could happen if Alfie were, as his parents wish, allowed to be taken to the Bambino Gesù hospital in Rome, where doctors are ready and willing to do their best for him? Would he endure impossible suffering on the journey? Would the treatment itself be painful to the point where it would be better to allow him to die at home? I have not read anything to the effect that either the journey or the treatment – which wouldn’t be undertaken by crazed fundamentalist amateurs but by Italian paediatric specialists – would cause unendurable suffering. Just that it probably won’t work. And not being a neurologist, I accept the expert view that the chances are very, very slim, possibly nil. But that’s not the real argument; it is the judges’ view that Alfie’s quality of life would be such that his life would not be worth living if he did survive. And that’s a contention we are indeed entitled to dispute.
What, exactly, is to lose by trying, by allowing the parents one last go at enabling him to live? They may not have the benefit of quite the education that the high court judges do, or indeed the female columnists, but they’re not stupid. They’re not saying he’d definitely survive, just that they want one last try. It would not be a cost to the NHS. If that were the case, I’d have a great deal more sympathy for the opponents of further treatment. But the costs need not be borne by the state, but by Alfie’s supporters. If it were a matter of raising funds, that could, I guess, be done within hours. There are no other apparent grounds for barring the child and his parents the right to travel to a state that has granted him citizenship and is willing to treat him, rather than insist that really he ought to die quietly in everyone’s best interests. God knows, I believe in life after death but I’d want my child to be given the chance to extend his life, if expert help could make that happen. I know; that would make me emotive rather than dispassionate; but what’s wrong with that?
Until now, I had a good deal of sympathy with the argument that Britain should leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and that fundamental rights for British citizens should be determined by the British courts. But if the judicial system here is ruled by people governed by the miserable and unChristian utilitarianism that’s been evident in this case, I may, not for the first time, have been wrong.