Alfie Evans: Life and Death

As I read, I cut out items that raise questions I want to think about, and I clip them to my bulletin board (virtually, of course) so I won’t forget about them. From time to time, I’ll be sharing what I am thinking about some of them with you. Here’s one from The Gospel Coalition that’s been much on my mind this week:

The FAQs: What You Should Know About the Alfie Evans Controversy

“As with the Charlie Gard case, the main ethical issue is about the scope of parental rights, and who should be allowed to decide what is in the “best interests” of the child in regards to additional treatment.

If Alfie’s parents decided to discontinue life-sustaining treatment (as Gard’s parents eventually did) as being in the child’s best interest, there would be no controversy. Similarly, few people would object to the state seeking extraordinary measures to sustain the life of a child.

The concern stems from the state having the power to decide to allow a child to die against the wishes of the parents.”

This is big and there two issues I am considering. The first issue is: who gets to decide the life and death of a person? The second issue concerns the worthiness of life. Who determines that? Also, how do we think about such things?

First, we need to understand how difficult it is to know what to do in life and death situations such as that of young Alfie. Many of you have been here; nearly all of us will be here in one way or another at some point in our lives. The struggle to do the right thing must be at the forefront of this issue.

As you might know, Alfie Evans died last Saturday morning. Alfie’s parents did not agree with the state’s ruling that their son was to be taken off life support. Italy (like England, a country with single-payer health insurance) offered to take Alfie in and try different procedures to give the child a chance at life. The U.K. refused to allow Alfie to be moved to the Italian hospital. (This reads like something straight out of a Franz Kafka story. It is absolutely chilling).

Pope Francis weighed in on the side of the parents while The Church of England was deafeningly silent. As a fellow Anglican, I am deeply disappointed in the Church of England’s silence. The Pope is right about this. The family should not have had to appeal to Rome for Christian advocacy. Unfortunately, Rome was their only avenue.

As we consider healthcare and the access to healthcare, we really need to think about what it means for the provider to also have the power of coercion. Alfie’s parents should have agreed that the decision to remove life support was the correct one before it was done. Since they did not, the British government should have allowed them to take their child to Italy. There would have been no cost to the British government. This was an inexcusable abuse of power. This story is something everyone should file away for the debates to come, wherever you might find yourself on the healthcare issue.

The second issue we should consider is the worthiness of life. Who gets to determine whether a life is worth living or not? What is the formula by which we determine these things? Is it earning potential? Reproductive potential? What sort of understanding of the world determines this formula? Materialism? Rationalism? Christianity? In a pluralistic society, this is not an easy question.

What is the line to draw as far as that goes? What about Down Syndrome? Brain damage? AIDS? Disfigurement? Gender selection? Who gets to draw the line? How are they held accountable? What if the decision-makers change their minds? What is the process by which this is done? What metaphysical or ethical system guides this?

There are many more things to think about with respect to this case. These are just a few. I bring this painful case to your attention because we are going to be seeing more like it. As Christians, we need to think through these issues and pray that we witness to Our Lord well when we are called to face them.

–David Browder