If you have somehow missed it, the courts of the United Kingdom have decided for the second time in a span of less than a year to permit the withdrawal of life support from a very, and apparently terminally, ill baby. Last year saw the case of Charlie Gard and now it is a child by the name of Alfie Evans. As I write it is at least 60 hours since life support was withdrawn from the Evans boy and he remains alive, but not likely for long.
Much of the writing that has gone on in the wake of these two events has decried the decisions. I agree, on its face for the state to allow, if not encourage, the death of a minor child over the express wish of the child’s parents is horrible, awful, ugly and heinous. But before I move on from this point I want to recommend a couple of readings on the issue. One from friend Matthew Anderson is quite balanced about the nuances of the situation and departs from the strict pro-life party line. The other is from David French at NRO and discusses the prevailing philosophical notions that underlie such decision making.
What I want to consider is the text of the judges decision itself. You can read it in its 23-page entirety here. This should be contrasted with the various rulings surrounding the Teri Schiavo case of now 13-14 years ago. (I have tried to find a nice article that would briefly retell the Schiavo story since it is so long ago, but everything I could find on the internet is too heavily loaded with opinion and posturing. If you do not know or recall the case, I will leave you to your own research.) In the Schiavo case the longest court ruling is 1.5 pages. The only legal document longer than 2 pages is a report to the governor of Florida from the Guardian ad Litem. I think it is important to understand why the British legal rulings were so involved in comparison to the American ones in a similar case.
The reason that the rulings are so very different is that the basic question in front of the courts is quite different in the two situations.
In the Schiavo case the basic question was “Who has the power to decide what happens with Ms. Schiavo?” The American legal system, with its private healthcare system, boiled the issue down to fight between Schiavo’s husband and her parents. That has always bothered me for it strikes me as reducing Ms. Schiavo to chattel. In the American legal system the question of what was best for Ms. Schiavo was never a question for the courts, only who had the legal right to decide what was best for Ms. Schiavo. That is pretty plain letter law in the US so there was little for the courts to say. Since the Schiavo case I have personally been through similar, though far less consequential, proceedings. I can tell you based on that most unpleasant experience that the issue of what was best for the individual unable to speak for themselves was at best a secondary consideration.
The Evans case in the UK is very different in that by virtue of the nationalized healthcare system they have there the question in front of the court is in fact what is best for the child. Hence the voluminous nature of the court ruling. That ruling considers and recounts opinions from doctors, the parents, and other concerned parties – even the Pope. The ruling slowly and methodically builds a case that the best scenario for the child is palliative care.
Both approaches are problematic on some level. The American approach is plagued, as I have said, by reducing the incapacitated to chattel. The British approach borders on tyranny as it gives the state an undue amount of power. The fact that two very different approaches to similar situations are both plagued with deep problems is indicative of just how incredibly difficult these situations actually are.
I wish, even pray, that I had some third approach that was not plagued with deep difficulties of its own, but I do not. Frankly I see no way for situations like this to be resolved without some sort of compromise of freedom or humanity until Jesus returns. And so I pray tonight that Jesus would fill the heart of everyone involved, doctors, judges, parents, and the public. May He console those that need it and provide wisdom to those making decisions.