I offered my Mass intention on Monday for the parents of Alfie Evans. It is almost impossible to imagine what they have been through. Alfie himself, I am sure, rests in the loving arms of his heavenly Father, a significant consideration to temper the grief for those who have faith, but not one that could ever justify the ending of a life because it was burdensome.
Ironically, the reality that Alfie was going to a better place was not a factor informing the considerations of the secular court, which made its determination that it was in his “best interests” to die even more incomprehensible, given that, by all accounts, a reasonable alternative was readily available and the child was not in pain.
I had a sagacious Old Testament professor who used to say: “Specialists create their own specialisations.” The tragic unfolding of this case reminded me of his axiom. I have a profound unease at the way these events unfolded and really struggle to understand their significance given the opposed opinions of bodies I am ordinarily disposed to respect, such as our own bishops’ conference, the US bishops’ conference and the Anscombe Bioethics Centre.
I am sure there are considerations of which I am unaware. But I am suspicious of the idea that a decision to end a life because it is burdensome is so specialist as to be incomprehensible to the sensibilities not just of loving parents but also of some Catholic hierarchies, to Catholic medical ethicists and even to some secular governments. The idea that only “fundamentalists” oppose what happened is actually a projection of the state’s own stance.
We were asked to accept the premise that Alfie’s best interest was to die now, despite a clear alternative being presented. Ordinary people – not fundamentalists – find this very hard to understand. I think this is because the ethic deciding such an outcome for that little child was a purely scientific one, not one informed by metaphysical or theological considerations. To be sure, it is not Catholic teaching to maintain biological life at all costs, but in the world of common sense there is a readily perceptible difference between maintaining life at all costs and maintaining it at the cost of simply trying a practicable alternative freely available.
To balance the certain outcome of withdrawing treatment and nourishment against the hypothesis that this person cannot improve, and then opt for the former really does seem to me to be playing God. The law is being compelled to uphold not the sovereignty of life, but that of the medical profession, and by extension the right to end life according to a specialist state-determined ethic of what makes a life burdensome or worthwhile.
As we have seen from the legislation governing abortion, all such anti-life measures paint themselves as pragmatic and reasonable, hedged round with caveats about medical necessity, rare use, “only ever in patients’ best interests”, exceptional circumstances, etc. In a short time they become a tyranny against the defenceless.
I would be happy to be proved wrong, but I fear that, by backing the hospital so unequivocally, there is a danger that our bishops’ conference has not defended the right to life so much as the right of the state to determine what conditions meet an ever narrowing, more specialist and therefore effectively autonomous scientific ethic of what constitutes a burdensome life. Ethically we are left trying to catch up with doctors and lawyers.
Since it is true that hard cases make bad laws, it is all the more necessary to defend life. I mean to defend the principle that life is a value in itself, and not something which admits of value only according to specialist scientific evaluation of what kind of life it is deemed to be, regardless of the natural rights of parents. That a life may be unsustainable is so incontrovertible a reality that it seems perverse to say that you may not seek a different diagnosis or treatment from someone who believes this is not so. For many lives are unsustainable without treatment, and all are without food and hydration.
I hope Alfie can rest peacefully and that his family find some comfort. But the questions left by this case about what constitutes dying with dignity have not been laid to rest by his passing.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund