Alfie Evans: the uses and misuses of language

Francis Phillips
May 2, 2018
Reproduced with Permission
Features

Those who oppose abortion readily recognise the way language is twisted by the pro-choice side of this debate. In a deliberately disingenuous way, supporters of abortion go to great lengths to prevent vulnerable women from knowing that their pre-born baby is being killed. They use phrases such as "the removal of pregnancy tissue", "the product of conception", "clump of cells" and so on. Such weasel phrases are instantly decoded by pro-life advocates through long experience in dealing with their opponents.

Catholics are not the only group that defends life, though they are at the forefront of this battle, with many valiant members, some known to me personally. Thus it is with a certain amount of alarm and disquiet that I witness this same valiant group misusing language in their turn. I refer to the recent publicity given to the tragic case of Alfie Evans, the Liverpool baby with a terminal neurodegenerative illness.

I was drawn into some on-line forums when I saw that they were not really discussions about the important and difficult issues thrown up by the Evans case, but unwarranted assumptions made on the strength of partial and patchy press and media reports rather than on the actual facts of this sad story. For those who would like to read the Judge's report on the case, here is the link.

In painstaking detail in 23 pages, and with due and sensitive consideration for the parents' views, the Judge laid out his reasons for his eventual judgement: that the baby's best interests were best served by having palliative care at the same hospital that had looked after him so conscientiously and caringly for the past 18 months. Readers are welcome to disagree with the Judge's decision but they cannot accuse him of prejudice.

Yet in trying to have a reasonable debate with other pro-life Catholics I realised that at no stage had they ever considered a viewpoint other than their own. Indeed, to raise any objection to their narrative on the issue was in their eyes tantamount to a betrayal of the pro-life cause. I was told by someone that he was "sickened" by my views. Language was used that could only be described as inflammatory and highly charged. When, both in the interests of natural justice towards the hospital involved and because I was keen to discuss the wider ethical implications of modern medicine, terminal illness and palliative care, I tried to put an alternative view I was told that "In England, there is a great deal of distrust towards the state at the moment"; that "the child was doomed"; that I had "a wilful bias towards the hospital"; "that it is not the place of government to strip parents of their God-given rights"; that this case was "a gross example of tyranny"; that "It is a slam dunk that the human dignity of the parents was stripped by the State"; that parents "have rights that should never be abrogated by the state"; that "I hate big government just for things like this" - and so on.

It quickly came home to me that we Catholics can also misuse language, just as we sometimes accuse others of doing. "Distrust", "doomed", "wilful bias", "tyranny", "the State", "big government" - all words and conclusions arising out of the vast echo-chamber of the internet, where almost as in the innocent party game of Chinese Whispers, people can arrive at frighteningly different words from where the discussion begins.

In part of his statement on the Evans case, Cardinal Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, stated that "The Church says very clearly we do not have a moral obligation to continue a severe therapy when it's having no effect, while the Church's Catechism also teaches that palliative care, which isn't a denial of help, can be an act of mercy. Rational action, spared of emotion, can be an expression of love". He also commented, "Wisdom enables us to make decision based on full information…"

In this brief opinion piece, I stress that I do not wish to "take sides" in this particular and very sad case. But it is vital that we review and debate the truly ethical Catholic position and ask questions such as: are there circumstances in which parents forfeit their rights over their children? What does "severe therapy" mean in the context of modern medical advances? What is the difference between deliberate euthanasia and "allowing nature to take its course" as the old expression has it? What is palliative care, how does it differ from "treatment" and how can it be an act of mercy?

We Catholics have a duty to discuss these issues with courtesy and restraint - not least because the alternative is to give scandal to those outside the Church who look to us for leadership on difficult ethical issues only to discover that we, not unlike our opponents in the abortion debate, in our sincere zeal to protect life, can be tempted to succumb to twisting words for misleading emotional and rhetorical effect.


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