Alfie’s Story and the British Establishment

It was perhaps inevitable that disagreement would be in the air when 21-month-old Alfie Evans died from an undiagnosed neurological condition at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool last month.

For Christians, it was the apparent determination of Alfie’s doctors to turn off his life machine that was disturbing.

Yet while many Christians also felt uneasy over reports that hospital staff felt intimidated by some members of “Alfie’s Army” – passionate pro-lifers who seemed to regard the removal of his ventilation as tantamount to judicial execution – the judge’s ruling received an overwhelmingly negative reaction among most Christian commentators.

Somehow the British establishment in the case of Alfie Evans contrived to make a tragic situation worse, wrote Damien Thompson in The Spectator. They did so to the point where large swathes of European and American public opinion were convinced that the terminally ill child and his parents Tom Evans and Kate James were the victims of a grotesque injustice.

Whether that is the case will remain a matter of opinion, Thompson writes, because the medical and ethical questions raised by Alfie’s plight are not easily resolved.  A particularly striking aspect of the case was the unwillingness of Catholic Bishops in England and Wales to offer Tom Evans – a practicing Catholic – anything other than “lukewarm moral support” – in contrast to the attitude of the Pope, who gave the parents’ efforts to move their child to Rome for treatment his unequivocal backing.

Thompson argues that Alfie’s case raises several important questions:

  • Why were the High Court and the hospital so determined to stop Alfie’s parents flying him to Rome – and even reluctant to send him back home to die? Isn’t this a classic example of 21st-century judicial overreach?
  • Why did Mr Justice Hayden, the High Court judge who blocked the parents from removing Alfie from hospital, spend so much time attacking aspects of their campaign? No doubt the cause did attract people with unfashionable and even bigoted views – but the parents’ request that their child should be transferred to Rome for treatment was perfectly reasonable.
  • Why was so much British media coverage of the Alfie Evans story either cursory or partisan? The Times‘s news reports at one point focused obsessively on the role of Christian “fundamentalists” in the case – yet it was raising concern in many quarters, not least Europe and America.

Alfie’s story was one of the first of its kind to be fought on Facebook, wrote Matt Reynolds in Wired. More than 600,000 people in the UK and around the world were glued to the Facebook group Alfie’s Army, where they regularly received real time updates of his condition. Reynolds argues that the recent decision by Facebook to tweak its algorithms so that posts from news organisations no longer take precedence over posts from family friends played a significant role in drawing attention to Alfie’s plight.The Alfie’s Army Facebook group also provided a place for fringe news sites to reach new audiences. References to pro-life and conservative American sites litter the comments-beneath posts,” he wrote.

What we have here, wrote Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail is a clash between the duty of the state or its representatives to safeguard the weak and vulnerable, and the rights of parents to make life-and-death decisions regarding their child.

The stand-off can also be expressed as a conflict between people who look at the problem in a secular way and those (the parents, their many supporters and the Pope) who see it in religious, and specifically Christian terms.

“The judge in the case evidently viewed the moral problem entirely through secular eyes,” Glover wrote, “whereas the Pope’s perspective – and that of most Christians – was different.

“Christians believe that life is unspeakably precious. It must be defended and fought for where there is any hope at all, however tiny.”

In reality Alfie’s tragic story was about the power of the establishment elites, in this case both medical and judicial – two classic arms of the corporate entitlement that rules Britain – to order the lives of the rest of the population, Gerald Warner wrote on Reaction.

“And what more potent virility symbol for a ruling clique than wielding the power of life and death?” 

Warner argues that at every stage of this power struggle, the motive invoked was Alfie’s “best interests”.

“In the event,” he wrote, “Alfie’s best interests turned out to consist of removing his ventilation, depriving him of nutrition for more than 24 hours, giving him minimal hydration and refusing, with the support of the courts, to release him from the hospital where this regime was being imposed on him.”

Alfie’s case reflects the fact that family and parental rights are being marginalized in Britain, Warner argues, and that was spelled out from the judicial bench. The judge made clear that parental rights took second place to the child’s best interests, “a subjective term that turned out to be a euphemism for killing him”.

Last word to John O’Sullivan writing for “Ending Alfie’s treatment was a decision driven not by NHS cost controls but by the idea that his treatment was futile. And futility is as much a moral as a medical judgment.

The controversy reflects a wider division in European society, he argued, between a warm hearted, religious view of things and a colder, more scientific outlook.

“The idea that the paramount interests of the child required forbidding his parents from moving him to another hospital where doctors were willing to treat him was a paradox too far,” O’ Sullivan wrote