Harrop: The lessons to take from brief life of Alfie Evans

The feared abuses of government-run health care weren’t to be found in the care of an British child.

By Froma Harrop

The baby Alfie Evans has died. Born in Liverpool with a degenerative brain condition, Alfie had been in a semi-vegetative state for over a year. Against his parents’ wishes, the hospital took Alfie off ventilation.

The parents had wanted to move him to a Vatican hospital in Rome that would have kept him on life-support. But the British hospital refused to release the baby, deeming further treatment “futile.”

Foes of national health care in this country latched on to this tragic case for political purposes. A Heritage Foundation headline called it “A Sordid Lesson in Government-Controlled Health Care.”

Actually, it was the opposite. It was an inspiring example. Britain’s government-run health care system had given this working family’s baby nearly two years of intensive First World medical care at no charge to the parents. It desperately tried to save Alfie.

In a crashing irony, conservatives in the U.S. called for keeping Alfie on life-support while pushing to dismantle what little health coverage many Americans have. Under President Trump’s leadership, they work tirelessly to drain the Affordable Care Act of the funds it needs to stay afloat. They have no plausible replacement.

Britain’s National Health Service is truly socialized medicine. Unlike the Canadian system, where the government picks up the bills but doctors work for themselves, medical professionals in Britain are public employees.

NHS critics make valid points. But if Britain’s leaders ever attempted to replace their government-run program with a system like ours, there would be riots in the streets. British Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative, noted that many of the people protesting with Alfie’s parents were also demanding more funding for the NHS.

The folks at Heritage routinely try to weasel out of their opposition to universal coverage by implying that there are ways to get there other than by “total government control” of health care. This is true. Obamacare was one of those ways. Many countries do it through multi-payer systems mixing government and private insurance.

What they all have in common, however, is guaranteed coverage for everyone. And that’s not going to happen without a strong government hand at the levers.

For many Britons siding with Alfie’s mother and father, the issue was parents’ right to make medical decisions for their children. Under British law, parents can be overruled when their preference on care risks harm to a child. They can take the matter to various courts. Alfie’s parents did, to no avail.

Heritage’s Robert Moffit tried to swing the discussion back to the imagined evils of government-run health care. “If you reduce medical judgments to political or bureaucratic decisions,” he wrote, “you can expect arrogant and cruel, often heartless and incompetent, decisions.”

But the medical judgments in Alfie’s case were made by medical professionals. Doctors at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital had scans showing “catastrophic degradation of (Alfie’s) brain tissue.” They determined that leaving the baby tied to wires and tubes with no hope of improvement would have been “unkind and inhumane.”

When death came, the tide went out on the naked politicizing of this tragedy. Alfie’s father thanked the hospital staff “at every level for their dignity and professionalism during what must be an incredibly difficult time for them too.”

Although Pope Francis had joined Christian activists in supporting the parents’ case, Catholic bishops in England and Wales did not join him. The health care system was doing God’s work, too.

Both sides in the Alfie Evans story were heartfelt in their concerns. And in the end, both sides had to acknowledge how much medical care their government bestowed on a grievously brain-damaged baby.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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