Much that can be said about the tragic story of Alfie Evans has already been said. But there may be just a little more to say and, before saying it, a short account of his tale is unavoidable. Alfie has been diagnosed as having a irreversible and untreatable brain condition. He has been treated in Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool since 2016. The doctors treating him recently sought to turn off his ventilation. They are certain that there was no hope of saving him. His parents sought to transfer him to a Catholic hospital in Rome. Doctors there agreed that there was no prospect of treating Alfie successfully, but said that they could keep him alive for a while, and seek to identity the brain condition, which is unknown. The courts sided with the hospital. Alfie died this morning.
At first glance, it sounds like a classic Catholics v Others dispute. But, as Damian Thompson has pointed out, matters aren’t quite that simple. On the one hand, the Pope supported Alfie’s father, Tom Evans – meeting with him and tweeting his support for Alfie’s transfer to Rome. On the other, Malcolm McMahon, the Archbishop of Liverpool did not back the move. “I am very aware of the compassion which is characteristically shown by the Italian people to those in need, and in this case Alfie,” he said. “But I know that our medical and legal systems in the UK are also based on compassion and the safeguarding of the rights of the individual child.” In the absence of any indication to the contrary, it must be assumed that the other bishops of England and Wales have lined up behind the Archbishop.
He was referring to the extraordinary granting of Italian citizenship to Alfie, in order that he be eligible for treatment at Bambino Gesù, the Roman hospital in question. The Italian state even offered to pay for the flight. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, lined up behind Alfie’s parents. So did Antonio Tajani, the President of the European Parliament. Pro-life campaigners rushed on to social media to back the parents – many from America, some of whom will have been evangelical fundamentalists. Their view is that turning off Alfie’s life support is judicial murder. Staff at Alder Hey say that they were intimidated on social media. Merseyside Police issued a warning about malicious communications.
Mr Justice Hayden, the High Court judge who heard the appeal of Evans’ parents, laid in to advice that they had received from the Christian Legal Centre as “startling”: as the Secret Barrister says, “that’s judge-speak for batshit”. The position of the courts throughout has been unambiguous – the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights have all reached the same conclusion as the High Court. As Thompson wrote, there is undoubtedly a difference between a certain Northern European perspective, which doesn’t acknowledge the right to life of the unborn or the severely disabled, and one held elsewhere, including most of the rest of Europe and much of the United States.
Catholicism is a factor here, but not a determinant. Not so long ago, Irish TDs and senators would have spoken up. But the culture of Ireland is changing: the coming referendum on abortion, set for May 25, is likely to lift the constitutional bar on it. Meanwhile, the legal and ethical to-and-fros which have created such a public stir abroad have not done so here. None the less, questions are being asked about whether “the best interests of the child” should be interpreted in the way that the courts did in Alfie’s case. In a nutshell: why should his parents not have the right to have their child die in Rome rather than Liverpool? It is important to add that Tom Evans, who once said that his son was a “prisoner” in the Alder Hey, has now called off his campaign, and asked his supporters to do likewise.
Nearly everyone who has written about this contested story has focused on the questions arising from Alfie’s plight – parental, ethical, legal. It may be useful to widen the angle of the lens. Are the overall rights of families and the state in proper balance? Most of us are torn in different directions. If Baby George is taken away from his mother by social services, we are outraged. If Baby Peter is tortured to death, we chorus that they should have acted faster – even acted at all. Some feel that the pendulum has swung too far in government’s direction. Camilla Cavendish, then a Times journalist, later the head of David Cameron’s Policy Unit, led a long campaign against the media being barred from family courts. It was only partially successful.
Elsewhere, the state is having a big push against extremism. ConservativeHome is the last site to dispute the connection between non-violent and violent Islamist extremism. But so far the Government has been unable to find a workable definition of what extremism is. So it came about that the Conservative Party’s own parliamentary correspondence unit drafted a note suggesting that the Extremism Disruption Orders would in some circumstances “apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong”. What protection do parents and families have against what our columnist, Alex Morton, has called “the rise of the progessive authoritarians”?
The most telling indicator may be not a heart-rending human story, such as that of Alfie Evans, but the arid business of the state’s support for families in the tax system. Patricia Morgan has pointed out that “in the post-war decades, the child tax allowance was more or less equal to the personal tax allowance by the time children were in their teens, freeing a father on average income from tax”. Obviously, fewer mothers then worked in the labour market, and family structures have been transformed during the past 50 years. But nothing speaks more eloquently of the weakness of families – couples with dependent children, whether married or not – in our political system than the rises that have been written into their tax bills.