In Liverpool, a very little boy is still struggling for his precious little life. Alfie Evans was born on May 9, 2016. Under normal circumstances, he and his proud parents would be about to celebrate his second birthday. But Alfie suffered seizures beginning about seven months after he was born, and a team of doctors in Britain decided that he had suffered irreversible brain damage and should be allowed to die.
His parents have fought for his life and a continuation of life support, encouraged by a multitude of friends who identify as #AlfiesArmy. Alfie has been supported by powerful friends. Pope Francis offered to pay all expenses for Alfie to be moved to the Gesu Bambino Hospital associated with the Vatican. Italy rushed to offer litte Alfie citizenship, but the British government, acting with the doctors in what it claims is the best interest of the child, has blocked every intervention, overridden the rights of his parents, and insisted that life support must be removed.
And so it was, on Monday. The doctors had declared in court that Alfie, once removed from life support, would die within minutes. As of now, Friday afternoon, Alfie is still alive breathing on his own, refuting the insistence of his doctors that he die.
The Alfie Evans story is a horrifying example of what ensues when the state denies parental rights.
Alfie’s case is just one more disturbing case of an ominous trend in the UK. As in case of Charlie Gard months ago, the state is denying parents the right to make medical decisions for their children. Instead, medical authorities, backed by the courts, have insisted that the child must be “allowed to die.”
One of the most important rights throughout human history is the right of parents to make decisions concerning their children’s welfare. Almost every culture and civilization has honored this principle—formally or informally--as a basic human right and a necessary foundation for family flourishing. Western countries often recognized parental rights as natural rights—rights that cannot be compromised by government interference. But in the case of Alfie, the state is redefining parental rights so that they extend only as far as the government or other elites, such as the medical elites, determine.
Furthermore, unlike the Charlie Gard case, Alfie Evans has only been examined by one medical team or acute care team. As Charles Camosy has pointed out, those acute care teams of medical experts often make the wrong decisions regarding the inevitability of death. To put the matter bluntly, there are numerous cases in which medical authorities said an individual would surely die, but those people are still alive.
Sohrab Amari, writing for Commentary Magazine, is on point: “The medical complexities of the case, played up by the court and its defenders, serve to obscure a basic moral principle. No one is asking the UK National Health Service to expend extraordinary measures to keep Alfie alive. All Alfie's parents ask is to be allowed to seek treatment elsewhere, again at Italian expense, even if such treatment proves to be futile in the end.” The same principle, says Amari, was at stake in last year's Charlie Gard case. Once more, British courts have distorted the relevant legal standard, the best interest of the child, to usurp natural rights. This disturbing point is a political issue, to be sure. But natural rights are pre-political. Governments do not invent or grant natural rights. The rightful role of government is to respect and protect the rights that exist prior to the state and its laws.
If the state does not recognize parental rights as natural rights and government authorities and elites can subvert the will of parents, then we're going to witness a long succession of cases just like Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans—and not just in Great Britain.
Successful civilizations have always understood that parents bear the primary, non-delegable responsibility to raise their children. These civilizations have also recognized the fundamental right of parents to do so. Parents are those most likely to know how to act in the best interest of the child. Of course, modern civilizations have also had to deal with the question of what happens when parents are clearly not acting in the best interest of their child. In these instances, courts have and should intervene, but only when overwhelming evidence demonstrates that the parents do not pursue the good of their children.
When the government subverts parental rights, perverse incentives are often at play. Some of the government officials in the UK making the decisions about Alfie, and those like him, are the very persons trying to save money in the healthcare system. Many of these individuals making these decisions are driven by legal and moral assumptions that are wildly at variance with the sanctity of human life. Furthermore, many of the people making these decisions may be operating from worldviews directly at odds with those of both patients and parents.
The US and UK are markedly different with regard to when states can intervene in the lives of families. Historical, legal, cultural, and constitutional issues are ultimately behind these differences. But parents in the United States and elsewhere must be aware of the fact that many in our country want to make our own system more like the United Kingdom. Consider, for instance, the case of the teenager in Ohio who was removed from parental custody because they would not agree to move forward with the teenager’s desire for gender transition surgery.
Once we deny human dignity and the sanctity of every human life--once we deny parental rights as natural rights--disaster will ensue. The case of Alfie Evans demonstrates this is not a theoretical problem. A special 23-month-old child, a child loved by his parents, granted Italian citizenship, and sponsored by the Pope, is being denied medical treatment—treatment his parents desperately desire. This child wants to live, evidenced by the fact that, even after he was removed from life support, he is still breathing.
Those who promote a progressive redefinition of medical ethics and legal authority assure us that what happened to Charlie Gard and to Alfie Evans will not happen, but it does. It happened with Charlie Gard, and it is happening again.
Those who want government to take even greater responsibility and authority in health care decisions promise that government will be wiser than the rest of us. But any system that shifts authority for deciding what is in the “best interest of the child” from parents to the state and its agents puts every child in danger. Any system that eliminates the rights of patients, parents, and family members to make the most urgent decisions about medical care endangers every patient.
Right now, the most urgent thing most of us can do is to pray for Alfie Evans and his family and to tell his story as loudly and as clearly as we can. He is fighting for his life, breath by precious breath.