The controversy about the illness and death of Alfie Evans in Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool makes me want to say a few things to clarify certain issues. I don't have inside information about medical or other details so I won't be going into those.
In this post I want to say something about about the various agencies of the state which were involved: the National Health Service, the Courts, the Police. In similar cases the Social Services can be part of the circus. A lot of people on social media, often from outside the UK, have had some very harsh things to say about these agencies. Those of us who live here and have to deal with them, and see others deal with them, are able to have a more nuanced attitude.
There is, all things considered, a lot to be grateful for in these institutions. I've personally had very good experiences with them, both directly and indirectly. The people working in them are often overworked and under paid. They have a high degree of professionalism. They are not financially or politically corrupt or corruptible in the ways that make dealing with similar organisations in other countries a constant problem. We should be proud to live in a country where they are, basically, on your side, if you have a problem. But they have their limitations.
They have limitations of resources. They have the limitations of their training and official protocols, which can on occasion conflict with common sense. (Any fixed set of administrative rules will on occasion conflict with common sense.) And they have the limitation, from each client's point of view, of trying to see things from everyone else's point of view. This sounds reasonable but can on occasion conflict with justice.
There is another more subtle limitation which arises from these. They are highly bureaucratic and have been given tasks to perform by the State. These tasks are intended to be benign, and usually are; the problem arises when a person interacting with these agencies finds himself in the category of an obstacle to the performance of an official task. If you disagree with what the protocol says should happen next, you become a problem. You become a piece of grit in the colossal bureaucratic machinery. Everyone you deal with starts looking at you as something to be evaded, dealt with, got out of the way of the task they have been given. The harder you struggle against it, the tighter the machinery will grip you.
Sometimes it is possible to defeat the machinery, but if it is a serious matter we are talking about a truly epic struggle. What is better, if at all possible, is to keep on the right side of the protocols: to find a way of presenting your problem in line with these protocols. This is a matter of experience, social skills, and practical wisdom. If you find yourself in conflict with these agencies and lack the relevant experience, you are going to need really good advice. Not always, but often, there are things you can say, buttons you can press, which if done early in the process can turn the situation around. Because these functionaries are not, generally speaking, malignant and unreasonable people. They are just trying to do their jobs.
I don't want to exonerate the state employees involved, when their procedures start producing unjust results: they are free and responsible individuals. But the pressure on them is subtle and immense. The flip side of the professionalism I noted earlier can be an inability to see things except through the lens of the official outlook. Decades of attempts by governments to get these agencies under some kind of control, particularly, in the NHS, financial control, has led to Kafka-esque limits on their discretion and acres of paperwork to prove that what should, officially, have happened, in any interaction with the public, actually happened. The only realistic rebellion open to the employees involved is to walk away from the job, and of course many take this course. Others become so influenced by official attitudes, sometimes derived from amoral government policies, that they end up morally corrupted.
As I say, I don't have a special insight into the inside details of the case, but from a UK perspective the Alfie affair has all the hallmarks of a family who got on the wrong side of the protocols. Alfie's parents were brilliant at creating a fuss, but clearly not so good at playing the system. This never ends well. Faced with increasingly powerful pressure--the MEP, the President of Poland, the Pope, the protesters--to violate their protocols, the system doubles down and calls in the police. Short of an armed revolution, you simply can't win that way. It just isn't possible, psychologically, politically, or legally (I'm speaking loosely here), for the system to concede defeat against such a frontal assault.
I should clarify that the pressure the Evans family created caused a number of good results. It created a cause celebre: it has shone a light onto the case and drawn attention to a real legal problem. It has thereby given a huge boost to the chances of changing the law. It had other, negative, effects. Above all, however, for Alfie's family it represented all they could do, and at that level their efforts must be respected. But in my judgement it was never going to have the necessary effect on the bureaucratic mind-set to get Alfie out of Alder Hey.
I'm not saying that's how things should be: obviously not. I'm just saying that this is how things are, and Catholics in the UK have developed robust and efficient networks of mutual aid to deal with it as best we can, centred around the Pro-Life movement. It is clear that only quite late in the day was the Evans family getting the benefit of this network, and even then it was not as systematic as it might have been. This emerges, for example, from the statement of the Christian Legal Centre here. I don't know if ultimate outcomes could have been different, but it is clear that things could have been handled better.
From the Catholic and pro-life side the lesson is a familiar one: families don't always get the support they need because they often don't know where to look for it. Unless you are already plugged into the Pro-Life movement, it may not cross your mind that there are several extremely experienced and quite well-resourced organisations willing to give you legal help for free, for example, when some hideous problem like this rears its head.
The visible, hierarchical Church could form the necessary connection between ordinary people and these sources of help, because the Church is closely identified with the Pro-Life position and everyone knows where to find the local priest and the local bishop. But thereby hangs another problem. The policy of the hierarchical Church has been to avoid, as best they can, any fight with the State since the Abortion Act. To say that with hindsight the Evans family made mistakes and that the medical profession has been unjustly maligned, as some commentators are saying, does not suggest that the English bishops were right to sit out the crisis on the sidelines. On the contrary, it suggests the opposite.
This is part of a four-part series on the Alfie Evans case:
Alfie vs. the System
Alfie and the Natural Law
Alfie and end of life care
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