After winning a legal battle to take a toddler off life support against the wishes of his parents, a children’s hospital in the U.K. denied oxygen and nutrition to a sick child in their care for over 24 hours. Twenty-three-month-old Alfie Evans defied the expectations of his doctors and survived for five days. He died on April 28th.
What could make a hospital so determined to watch a toddler die? They claimed in court that it was in Alfie’s “best interest.”
Alfie Evans had a degenerative neurological condition which doctors were unable to definitively diagnose. All that Alfie’s parents wanted was the chance to transfer the child to a hospital in Italy that was willing to treat him. They wanted to explore treatment options before giving up on their child. The U.K. courts refused to let that happen. This shows that the courts did not simply think that Alfie was incapable of surviving due to his condition. It exposes the fact that the government believes in its ability to make life and death pronouncements for those requiring medical treatment.
This assertion that living isn’t in the “best interest” of someone who is ill or disabled might sound familiar from history class.
The American eugenics movement in the Progressive Era (1890’s-1920’s) wanted to create a socially advanced society by better “breeding.” To achieve this genetically superior population, advocates of eugenics had a simple solution. It was to intervene in the family life of those lacking “usefulness”—people viewed as unable to contribute to society, economically or otherwise. Eugenics policies sought to eliminate these people from society through forced sterilizations and marriage restrictions to prevent procreation by those deemed “socially inadequate.”
Eugenicists were confident they could manage human evolution to produce a more intelligent and productive population. Today, medical advances are making it easier to discover and abort unborn children with disabilities and other “unwanted” traits. As a result, the same ethical questions that surrounded the American eugenics movement remain relevant today.
In pursuit of a more “perfect” society, the United States forcibly sterilized more than 60,000 Americans, mostly from 1907 to the early 1940’s, all to reduce the number of disabled or otherwise “undesirable” members of society.
The disabled were a primary target of eugenicists. It was argued that their lives were of no use to society or to themselves. That’s a lot like saying it’s not in the "best interest” of an ill toddler to explore treatment options, but to die instead.
This is the essence of the brutality of the eugenics mindset. Hospitals are places intended for healing and recovery. Yet, they weren’t places for disabled patients to receive that kind of treatment in the Progressive era. Instead, they were places where physicians targeted the vulnerable.
To prevent the vision of the eugenics movement from becoming a reality, we must make sure no group of people become our contemporary “socially inadequate” class.
It can be comforting to think about the evil of eugenics as a problem buried in the distant past. Western culture is more enlightened and tolerant now, right?
Alfie Evans’ situation demonstrates that the West is not immune to the hate and condescension toward human life that was present in the eugenics movement of the Progressive Era.
The way a society treats its most vulnerable members speaks to its moral health. The American eugenics movement sought to rid society of the weak. Our response to situations like Alfie’s should be to affirm that every life is worth living, and that the value of a life is not determined by the financial hardships or inconveniences it might cause.
The government should not and cannot determine when life is worth living or when death is in someone’s “best interest.” All people have dignity as image bearers of God, who has granted us the right to live out the life He gave us.
All persons deserve to be protected by our laws and accepted into our families. Neither the government nor physicians have the moral authority to say otherwise.
Ronald Reagan often quipped, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take it all away.” Alfie’s case shows just how true this is. The U.K.’s state-run National Health Service is big enough to grant health care to the entire population. We’re now finding out it is also powerful enough to deny that health care when they see fit.
Governments that hold this type of power will inevitably abuse it. George Santayana’s maxim that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is dead right. Currently, the U.K.’s handling of Alfie Evans’ situation echoes the talking points of the eugenics movement. This should terrify us.
Arielle Del Turco graduated from Regent University in 2018.