Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
Readers in Italy, the UK and the US are probably already familiar with the case of Alfie Evans, the 23-month-old baby boy suffering from an undiagnosed degenerative neurological condition. I’m writing on April 30, two days after Alfie died and one week after he was taken off life support at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, where he had been a patient since December 2016.
The case made international headlines because it pitted Alfie’s young parents, who wanted to continue treatment, against doctors, lawyers and judges who decided further treatment was not in the baby’s “best interests.” It became a cause for pro-life activists. The drama escalated with the involvement of Pope Francis and the Italian government when the latter offered Alfie citizenship so he could be transferred and treated at the Vatican-run Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome. The Polish government also got involved. In the end, however, the British courts refused to let Alfie leave Alder Hey.
As with any infant, Alfie’s death is heartbreaking, especially for his parents who did all they could to prolong his young life. It almost seems disrespectful to draw political lessons from such a deeply personal tragedy. Yet along with Charlie Gard, Alfie has become a hero to the grassroots pro-life movement and the wider populist political struggle going on in Britain, Europe and the United States. We’d have to be intentionally blind not to see similar sentiments among voters who chose Brexit and Trump. And we shouldn’t let an exaggerated sense of propriety prevent us from learning something useful.
Alfie’s treatment became a public issue solely because the British courts sided with the hospital against the rights of the parents. Would it have been so difficult to let them seek treatment in Rome? It is impossible to imagine a clearer-cut struggle between a vulnerable, innocent underdog against elites whose scientific rationalism presumes to know what is better for him than his loving parents do.
Who could possibly root against Alfie? Only those who see a life “unworthy of life” because they think suffering and disability are the greatest evils. Godspeed and good luck to anyone who may not be perfectly healthy in Britain: life and death will now be apportioned according to the same perverse sense of compassion that kills in the name of kindness.
This could only happen in a society completely divorced from Christian ethics, which pretty much describes Britain today. The Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool and the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales supported the hospital over Alfie’s parents. Unlike their predecessors, the bishops have no Henry VIII to fear, just elite opinion. Or perhaps their love of the National Health Service is greater than their love of justice.
Alfie’s was a political, not a religious, issue however. The governments of Italy and Poland did the right thing, and it is tempting to see them engaged in some kind of papist alliance against the perfidious Anglo-Saxons, but there’s more to it than that. Within the Church, Pope Francis’s common touch and populist instincts are far superior to those of the English bishops. Francis certainly deserves much credit for praying, meeting Alfie’s father in person and tweeting his support, but there are plenty of other issues in which the pope’s influence is not so great, immigration being the most obvious one. Old Anglican and Protestant fears to the contrary, political Catholicism is a spent force.
Alfie’s cause has more to do with with the bureaucratization of the European project and the large role played by the agencies like the National Health Service, the European Commission and others that make up the Administrative State. The European Union is increasingly unpopular in Italy and Europe in general because it is seen as unaccountable and meddling far too much in the daily lives of citizens. This de-politicized Europe is managed (or “nudged”) by administrative elites rather than governed democratically.
It wasn’t always so. Italy is one of the founding members of the EU and had been generally pro-Europe until the immigration crisis exposed the sham foundations of European unity and solidarity. Post-communist Poland was eager to join the West but now that it has elected a right-wing government, it is second only to Hungary as Europe’s pariah. Europeans see with their own eyes that the European Commission has come to rule their lives with little to no regard for what the European Parliament says, let alone what national governments do on behalf of their own people.
That’s because the Administrative State is a jealous god. It tolerates other sources of authority only insofar as they play by its rules. Religious leaders, elected representatives and parents must give way when it comes to the provision of things like welfare, health care, environmental protection and education. (As you may have guessed, the Administrative State has Prussian origins.) What is intolerable are people like Alfie’s parents deciding what is in the best interest of their child; the Administrative State demands doctors, hospital administrators/ethicists and, finally, the courts to manage the affairs of its subjects.
Why can’t these supposed experts simply exercise some common sense and respect parental rights, saving their energy for actual cases of child abuse and neglect? As innocuous as the concept sounds, “children’s rights” have been used to reduce the authority of parents and teachers previously responsible for the formation of the young. (See the 1982 Public Interest piece “Children’s rights, adult confusions” for background.) It is no accident that Hillary Clinton and many other progressive feminists have been deeply involved in the children’s rights movement. It is a noble-sounding way to increase the power of the State over traditional forms of authority, especially those governed by men: the Catholic Church, businesses and voluntary civic associations, and the traditional one-man-one-woman family. Patriarchy is the ultimate enemy to be defeated.
Impatient with the messiness of democratic procedures that rely on rational persuasion and compromises between parties, the Administrative State uses executive agencies and the courts to expand rights in the name of equality because…who is against equality? Abortion has gone from being a right to privacy to a public good. The Human Rights Campaign is concerned solely with protecting sexual deviance. The 2012 Obama campaign ad “The Life of Julia” portrayed a female life completely independent of men but utterly dependent on the State to provide education, career opportunities, health care, day care for children and finally retirement for women; a pain-less State-sanctioned death cannot be far behind. Not coincidently, the European Court of Human Rights refused to hear the appeal made on behalf of Alfie’s parents against the British courts. All of the above is proof that there’s clearly a problem with how we think about human rights in relation to older concepts such as the natural law.
Although there’s no way he or his parents could have known it, Alfie became the messenger of some important political lessons in his short life on earth. The culture of life has much more popular support in Europe than previously thought. European administrative elites are increasingly divorced from the lives of ordinary people. And any potential European renewal will have to respect and balance the political claims of the few and the many, along with those of religion and the family, just as wiser elites such as Plato, Aristotle and Thomas More could have taught us.