Alfie Evans is a 23-month-old boy in England who was admitted to the hospital in December 2016 with a chest infection and seizures. He has been on life support off and on since then, occasionally able to breathe on his own but existing in what doctors call a “semi-vegetative” state. Doctors have not made a definitive diagnosis, but some medical experts surmise that he has a degenerative neurological condition called Mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. The rare condition is incurable, and respiratory failure is the most common cause of death. In December 2017, a year after he was first admitted to the hospital, his doctors decided he should be removed from life support.
Alfie’s parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, want to keep the boy on life support, and a Vatican-affiliated hospital in Italy is willing to transport the boy and treat him if the British hospital releases him. Pope Francis met with Tom Evans last week and later tweeted his hope “that the suffering of his parents may be heard and that their desire to seek new forms of treatment may be granted.”
The case has accelerated this week. On Monday, doctors decided to remove Alfie from life support, against the parents’ wishes. On Tuesday, a judge ruled that the family may not take the boy to Italy for treatment; an appeals court confirmed the decision on Wednesday. The boy is breathing on his own and can drink water, according to his father. The pediatrics association representing the boy’s doctors released a statement saying its guidelines for withdrawing treatment include cases in which the child is unlikely to live much longer or when further treatment will cause “unacceptable pain and suffering.” The family is represented by the Christian Legal Centre, a British organization that has been involved in controversial cases covering a wide range of socially conservative causes.
Hundreds of protesters have gathered outside the hospital in Liverpool, at one point attempting to storm the front doors. Alfie’s case has also electrified the pro-life movement and other conservatives in both the U.K. and the United States. Supporters refer to themselves as “Alfie’s Army,” and they congregate on a Facebook page with more than 400,000 members. The Change.org petition for his release has earned more than 545,000 signatures and counting. The case has drawn attention from right-wing media figures including Alex Jones, Mike Huckabee, Matt Walsh, and Betsy McCaughey. Lila Rose, the founder of the activist group Live Action, is among those who have been frequently tweeting it. “Shame on England,” she wrote on Wednesday. “The whole world is watching.”
Both the medical case and media circus are reminiscent of the story of 11-month-old Charlie Gard, who—if the informed speculation about Alfie’s condition is correct—had the same incurable degenerative illness. The British boy died last summer after his parents’ fight to keep him on a ventilator attracted worldwide attention and public support from Pope Francis and President Trump. The same Vatican hospital that volunteered its services for Alfie Evans offered to treat Charlie. And the same cadre of activists seized on the case to make arguments about the right to life, parental rights, government overreach, and the supposed horrors of socialized health care.
It’s hard to squint past the bloviation that swirls around cases like this. As of this writing, the home page of Fox News features four separate pieces about Alfie and his family. The National Review is promoting at least five stories, a podcast, and an entire “Alfie Evans” section on its home page. Glenn Beck is calling it “state-mandated murder.” Some activists have compared Alfie to the new royal baby, questioning whether Alfie would be kept at the hospital against his parents’ wishes if his mother were a different British woman named Kate. But it’s possible to imagine making a different decision than the parents in this case and also to be unnerved by the specter of a family being unable to pursue their preferred course of treatment at a respected hospital.
For now, the family seems to be starting to accept that they are running out of legal options—and time with their son. In a statement to the press on Thursday morning, Tom Evans said their next move is to “start asking to go home.”