In a disturbingly similar case to that of Charlie Gard, another gravely ill little boy in the United Kingdom has died from being denied access to ordinary means of sustaining life. As with Charlie Gard, much could be said about the implications for parental rights highlighted in this case, although it seems as though a great many people in England and beyond maintain, as a matter of principle, that courts are better suited to determining the good of sick children than their own parents. Two other difficulties, though, are more apparent in this context.
First is the presumed infallibility of medical decisions. It is true that we trust doctors who are expert in narrow fields to help us make informed judgments regarding health. But it is also true that medical opinions can sometimes be proven wrong. Alfie Evans was offered medical assistance from doctors whose professional opinions differed from those treating him at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool. It may be the case that their opinions, too, could have proven wrong. But why not let reasonable attempts be exhausted in searching for a solution, or at least a clearer diagnosis? The medical professionals who were charged with the care of Alfie Evans maintained that he would not be able to live on his own without artificial assistance. That opinion was proven wrong as Alife breathed on his own for nearly five days until his death. Even apart from ethical considerations, we should be careful to distinguish between acceptance of a medical opinion because of its reasonability as opposed to the presumed infallibility of those associated with a specialized profession.
Far more troubling, however, is the total disregard for the provision of ordinary means of life sustenance in cases of those whose lives are considered not worth living at all. It is one thing to assert that a degenerative disease will likely one day claim the life of a person suffering from it. It is quite another to assert that death should be hastened by the removal of oxygen, nutrition and hydration because that life is no longer worth sustaining. Make no mistake about it. Alfie Evans’ death was hastened because a team of medical professionals, buttressed by the force of courts and legal professionals, judged that his disability rendered him unworthy to live. Even the highest degree of false compassion couldn’t justify a decision like that.
As only a sunny Irish playwright like Samuel Beckett could remind us, human beings “give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Or, as the ancient prayer of the Church reminded previous generations: “Even in the midst of life we are in death.” The truth is that we are all in the midst of dying. If that is the case, why should more of our deaths not be hastened? If the operative, yet unspoken, principle in the Alfie Evans case were applied more broadly, then why should the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the depressed, those with physical or mental limitations, not have their deaths quickened?
Culture thrives when it values human life—even life lived in the midst of great difficulties—and it corrodes when human life is seen as the enemy of convenience and expediency. The Church, in a moment such as ours in human history, never fails to issue the uncomfortable reminder that the lives valued least by such a corrosive culture are actually the lives dearest to God.