The tragic story of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old infant who passed away this morning, has touched the hearts of many across the globe. Suffering from a rare neurodegenerative disorder, the decision made by doctors – upheld despite several appeals made to the High Court- to turn off all life support for Alfie due to his condition was met with outrage by millions. The Italian government, with strong support from the Pope, granted him citizenship and offered to fly him to a children’s hospital in Rome for palliative care. However, doctors from Alder Hay hospital, supported by British courts, had ordered that Alfie may not leave the country for such a treatment. However, British courts barred Alfie from being taken anywhere out of his hospital ward in his final hours – including his family home.
We assume that doctors act on an ethical duty to protect human life. However, there are certain provisions within both the NHS and British law which contradict this. Life support may be terminated for a variety of reasons, some of which seem legitimate. Some however, do not make adequate logical or ethical sense. The terminating of Alfie’s life support was supported by the notion that it was in his best interest. While doctors are incredibly qualified, there are certain illnesses, such as that which affected Alfie, that doctors do not know enough about to make definitive decisions. This is evident considering the fact that earlier this week Alfie surprised doctors by continuing to breathe without the help of life support, which was turned off days ago. He was examined by a doctor from outside the hospital who concluded that he was not brain-dead. It is clear that there wasn’t significant evidence to decide that death was in his best interest. The handling of his case reveals a severe problem with the approach taken by the state to human life. If there is even the smallest chance – which in Alfie’s case, there evidently was – of a life being saved, then all measures should be taken to do so. The National Health Service doesn’t have to take those measures. They can decide to switch off life support if they see fit. But a patient should not be prevented from seeking alternative life-saving treatment elsewhere.
We would assume that parents are allowed to make decisions on behalf of their children. However, under British law this is not the case. The arguments made by British courts insinuate that in the UK, once an individual becomes gravely ill, they effectively fall into the control of the state through the courts, who are granted the final say over doctors and parents. The state should have no right to take ownership of an individual’s life.
Alfie’s case is unfortunately not unique, as Charlie Gard noticeable faced the same fate last year for a similar illness. Alfie’s family have now understandably requested privacy. The public and Alfie’s supporters should of course grant the family’s wishes in this very difficult time. However, this case must not be forgotten.