News Analysis

Britain: Family matters

The case has divided Catholics. Is there any common ground left?

For Alfie Evans’s parents, his death is a tragedy which they will have to endure for the rest of their lives. For many of Britain’s institutions, it has been a challenge to which they are struggling to respond. The NHS has been criticised – especially by Americans – as a heartless state-run behemoth. English courts have been seen as brutally indifferent to Alfie’s parents’ request to take their son to Rome’s Bambino Gesù hospital, which offered to care for the child. And the English and Welsh bishops, who backed Alder Hey hospital and the courts, have also come under pressure.

Earlier this week, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that “the court must decide”, that Alder Hey could be trusted, and that some had “used the situation for political ends”. Here the English bishops’ public statements have sharply differed from the Vatican’s.

Pope Francis led international calls for Alfie to be taken to Italy; the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said he was mystified by the hospital’s refusal to allow the trip to Bambino Gesù.

The bishops’ position is difficult. The episode has sometimes shown the pro-life movement at its best – a network of prayer, activism and practical solidarity, which stood up on behalf of a tiny vulnerable individual. But the last two weeks showed some less attractive things, too. The vicious personal attacks on judges and doctors; the spreading of unconfirmed rumours on social media; the lazy conflation of care withdrawal and “killing”; the dubious rhetoric about “socialised medicine”; the messiness of the court case – all this has made it harder for the bishops simply to say: “We stand with Alfie’s parents and with the Pope.”

The bishops’ conference is internally split on the matter, reflecting divisions within the Church. But there are still several areas where Catholics may be able to speak with one voice. First, given the speculation about Alder Hey’s treatment of Alfie in his last days, Catholics are likely to want a full, impartial report which aims at maximum transparency. What treatment was Alfie given? Was the hospital proved wrong in its earlier assessment of his condition?

Second, the case has exposed some ugly attitudes. Alfie’s state-appointed guardian told the High Court in February – as Mr Justice Hayden summarised her remarks – “that in her view Alfie’s life now lacks dignity and his best interests can only be met by withdrawing ventilation” (italics added). To his credit, Mr Justice Hayden disagreed with this statement. But he himself assessed Alfie’s dignity as a sum of the conditions of the child’s life, from the profound (the love of his parents) to the trivial (there were lots of toys around his bed). Earlier this week, meanwhile, the distinguished doctor Henry Marsh wrote in the Daily Mail: “The question of what constitutes a meaningful existence is dreadfully difficult, especially if a child with severe brain damage can only survive by being kept on life support.”

Any Catholic would be troubled by reading these remarks: the absolute preciousness of each human life needs to be restated. And given the attention Alfie’s case has received, this is a good moment to proclaim Catholic teaching on human dignity.

Third, as the academic Joseph Shaw recently wrote, the Evans case shows the need to support and promote organisations which can help people facing this kind of bureaucratic nightmare. “Unless you are already plugged into the pro-life movement, it may not cross your mind that there are several extremely experienced and quite well-resourced organisations willing to give you legal help for free, for example.”

Finally, there is now a serious movement for legal refom. The parents of Charlie Gard, whose case was similar, announced last week that they will campaign for such a change, based on several months’ work with legal and medical experts.

As some commentators have pointed out, in cases of taking a child away from parents, the law usually says, in effect: “This child stays with his family, unless the court hears decisive evidence of serious harm.” But in medical cases like Alfie’s, the law says: “Never mind the parents’ wishes: let’s just work out what we think is best for the child.”

Lady Justice King, in a Court of Appeal ruling last week, upheld this legal distinction, but without addressing the common-sense question: how can parents be overruled when they have a credible option, backed by a portion of expert opinion, to seek further care elsewhere? Many Catholics are likely to back a change in the law. It will be interesting to see whether the bishops are among them.


Key player

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool has backed Alder Hey hospital, which has many Catholic staff, stressing that “all who have played a part in Alfie’s life have wanted to act for his good, as they see it”. The archbishop recently admitted that “the past few weeks have been difficult with much activity on social media” – an indirect reference to the fierce criticism of the bishops and Alder Hey.