The Alfie Evans case produces a mixed bag of emotions for many of us as we watch the tragic story unfold on our TV screens and our computer monitors. Who can’t help but be torn by the conflicting narratives: the pain of parents who just want their baby boy to live and the doctors who say that Alfie’s brain is all but dead and it’s time to let go. As the father of a still-born son I know how hard it is when your dreams of a life with your child evaporate. But I also know that at the deepest point of pain, when we hand that pain over to God and ask him to own it and use it, somehow miracles happen.
It’s clear that when Alfie was taken off ventilation a few days ago he did remarkably better than was expected by medics on all sides of the debate, breathing unaided for over eight hours when the consensus was that the deprivation of support would lead to rapid deterioration. At the same time, it’s clear that his breathing is a last activity of a brain that shows very little sign of any cognitive activity – indeed this fact is one of the few things that most commentators agree on. Alfie’s brain has been damaged irrevocably by the illness that attacked him, any “responses” are now not even reflex, but rather symptoms of the ongoing trauma in his head.
At the core of the case is a simple question – at what point can the State (in the guise of the NHS, doctors and lawyers) argue that one pain is better or worse than another and in doing so overrule the wishes of parents for their child? In England and Wales we allow our courts, independent of both the Government and Parliament, to decide on the basis of evidence presented. It was the view of the court that moving Alfie might cause him pain and distress and that it wasn’t going to change even the medium term prognosis for him. Foreign hospitals weren’t offering better treatment, they were simply providing a more drawn out palliative care plan.
In all of this the Evans’ case hasn’t been helped by what seems to be highly emotive actions in court by those representing Alfie. The legal team have come under criticism for their arguments and the vexatious nature of some of their presentations, and Alfie's father, Tom Evans, talked of taking out a private prosecution against three doctors for "conspiracy to murder".
“The law is reason free from passion” is what Aristotle (and Elle Woods of Legally Blonde) teaches us, but for some reason Alfie Evans’ parents have chosen to be represented by a legal team who some view as having a record of badly representing their cases both in and outside of court. Take for example the “Alfie is now an Italian Citizen so should be let go” argument (Alfie was granted Italian citizenship a few days ago in an attempt to get him to Italy for further treatment). The correct place to apply pressure would have been at the Government to Government level (Ambassador to Foreign Secretary), not in a court which had already ruled “no”.
So what now? It would be wonderful if Alfie could die at home rather than in a clinical hospital environment, but the actions of the "rent-a-mob" outside the hospital (not all those at the vigil, but clearly a significant portion and enough to raise the concerns of the local police) and the lawyers in and out of the court have damaged the relationship with Alder Hey hospital. Perhaps it's time for the lawyers to go home, the vigil to disperse, nothing to be said for 48 hours and then a plan made, just the parents, the hospital and perhaps a children's hospice, to move Alfie home (or to the hospice) to live out his last few days.
What Alfie's parents need now is space to "befriend" the fact that their son is leaving them and leaving them soon. It's time to let go, to lay the body in the tomb, to weep the tears of grief. Let's give them space to do that and pray for healing for all involved. God is a God of resurrection and displays his power most visibly in transforming death into life. The new life is his choice and we don't get to dictate its form. It is the hardest path to take to walk into the valley of death, but in it we fear no evil because he is there.
Amidst all the pain and emotion and conflict, it’s time to walk away from the battle lines, pray (for Alfie, for his parents, for the doctors and nurses, for the judge, for everyone at Alder Hey) and watch. In time we can reflect on lessons learned.
The Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest, a consultant statistician and a Primary School Governor. He has been writing and broadcasting on issues of Christianity, sex and gender for almost two decades. He writes here in his personal capacity.