Monday was an extraordinary day in the life and case of Alfie Evans. As his life support was to be removed by doctors at Alder Hey hospital, the Italian government granted him citizenship and lodged a full-blown diplomatic protest to bring him to Rome to continue treatment. While courts rejected every appeal, crowds gathered outside the hospital, in support of Alfie’s parents and in increasing shock at the measures being taken to prevent him receiving treatment, either at Alder Hey or elsewhere.
At around 10pm on Monday night, Alfie’s life support was switched off. To ensure that no attempt was made to remove him as he died, policemen stood guard. But inconveniently for the courts and the hospital, who were so adamant about the futility of continuing treatment for Alfie, he continued to breathe unaided through the night while the world stood appalled at what had become of British justice and medicine. At the time of writing, it is still unclear whether the efforts to “let Alfie die” will ultimately prove as futile as Alder Hey and judges insist continuing to treat him would be.
What is clear to me is that when Alder Hey removed Alfie’s ventilator, they also ended the last illusion of parental rights in Britain, or any presumption of the intrinsic value of a human life. When the courts rejected the appeals of Alfie’s parents, agreeing with the hospital that any further treatment would be “futile”, what they really meant was that it was futile for Alfie to go on living. In reality, it was not the treatment which was considered pointless, but the life it was sustaining.
The outpouring of support for Tom Evans and Kate James, and their heroic witness of love and dignity for their son, show just how powerful Alfie’s short life has been.
When he travelled to Rome last week to meet Pope Francis and beg for his help, Tom Evans told him he would be “potentially saving the future for our children in the UK, especially the disabled” and he was exactly right. Despite attempts to obscure the issue, nothing has been at stake in the Alfie Evans case except the dignity and value of his life. In seeking to travel to Rome, nothing was being asked of the British health system and courts but that they get out of the way – something which some are all to happy to do when the destination is a Dignitas clinic instead of Bambino Gesù hospital.
A court determination that care can be withdrawn is one thing; a police presence to prevent the child being taken for treatment elsewhere is something else entirely – what exactly is hard to say. In a country where capital punishment and euthanasia are illegal, the court-ordered efforts to prevent Alfie from leaving Alder Hey alive defy legal categories, justice and logic.
The life of Alfie Evans has already been a stronger witness to dignity and hope than most other (supposedly less futile) lives will ever be. The courage and dedication of his parents is an inspiration, as has been the unqualified support of Pope Francis for the family. His intervention, which led directly or indirectly to the conferral of an Italian passport on Alfie, stands in stark contrast to the tepid equivocation of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
In a world of moral relativism, assessing a person by their supposed utility is unavoid-able. The role of the Church and the family in the 21st century is to be an unshakable witness to life. The Evans family, and Pope Francis, have given a powerful example to follow.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald