In the very sad case of Alfie Evans, plenty of views (or paraphrases of views) have been attributed to the English bishops. But it is worth reading what Cardinal Vincent Nichols actually said:
“Wisdom enables us to make decisions based on full information, and many people have taken a stand on Alfie’s case in recent weeks who didn’t have such information and didn’t serve the good of this child. Unfortunately, there were also some who used the situation for political aims.
“It’s important to remember Alder Hey Hospital cared for Alfie not for two weeks or two months, but for 18 months, consulting with the world’s top specialists – so its doctors’ position, that no further medical help could be given, was very important.
“The Church says very clearly we do not have a moral obligation to continue a severe therapy when it’s having no effect; while the Church’s Catechism also teaches that palliative care, which isn’t a denial of help, can be an act of mercy. Rational action, spared of emotion, can be an expression of love; and I’m sure Alfie received this kind of care.
“It’s very hard to act in a child’s best interest when this isn’t always as the parents would wish – and this is why a court must decide what’s best, not for the parents, but for the child.”
While the cardinal’s words make complete sense to me, I do not claim to have any special insights to offer on this heartrending case, and I am sure the debate will go on. But it does bring up a real paradox in the way society thinks about the value of lives. Despite what some of the more extreme anti-NHS campaigners seem to think, once a child is born, however premature and ill, the health service will spend millions and deploy every available technology to keep the infant going, even if the prospects seem hopeless. And most of us accept that use of scarce resources. Yet, on the other hand, unborn children are thought of differently, as somehow not quite as real.
Why this contradiction? Is it because once a baby is born you can see it? The emotional response changes. Love enters through the eyes. This was an insight that Shakespeare had. “In his mind,” says the great Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, “sight and love were inextricably linked.”
Think of King Lear, his daughter Cordelia dead in his arms. “Do you see this?” he pleads. “Look on her, look, her lips. Look there, look there!” Four “looks” and one “see”. But what is he seeing in his desperation? A glimmer of life? Her soul within? We cannot be sure – those are his last words.
I hope what follows is not too upsetting a lurch into personal disclosure, but some years ago my wife Katherine had a miscarriage roughly 16 weeks in. This happens to a lot of women. It was out of the blue, in the early hours. It left us with a tiny baby, which I put in a Tupperware box. Katherine, having passed out briefly, was admitted to a general hospital ward, with many elderly patients. She saw a robust and kindly Catholic chaplain, of African origin, who said: “Your baby is free of sin, and this is God’s will. Do not be broken-hearted.”
It was March 1, St David’s Day. There were daffodils on the ward. We – mainly Katherine, for at every stage she knew what to do – called the baby David. The next day, when I returned from taking our other children to school, the senior nurse brought us this baby boy, barely the size of my hand, laid on a white pillow, wrapped in a blanket. His little hands were together. The nurses had tears in their eyes.
Later the head nurse came to see us. She explained that on this ward they were not used to dealing with the beginning of life; they dealt with the end. Katherine said they could take the baby for post mortem. Eventually we received a report: probably an infection had caused the miscarriage.
This is only a snapshot. But the people showed such compassion and reverence over this lost life, I remember thinking how strange it was that, for all I know, somewhere else in that same hospital terminations might be being performed, perhaps for reasons we might think of as trivial. The difference in society’s attitude in the two sets of circumstances is striking.
That may change, as unborn babies become more visible, through developments in science. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out: “If the concept ‘child’ means anything, the concept ‘unborn child’ can be said to mean something, and … all the discoveries of embryology … appear to confirm that opinion, which I think should be innate in everybody.”
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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