Last month, the parents of Alfie Evans—a twenty-three-month-old British boy with a mysterious degenerative disease, whose doctors had decided against keeping him alive—lost a legal battle first to have the boy kept on a respirator and then to allow them to take him to Italy for treatment (being offered gratis), and finally to take Alfie home to care for him themselves in his final days. At each point—even when Alfie defied the doctors’ predictions and breathed on his own for several days—the court ruled that the hospital, not the parents, had the authority to determine the child’s best interests. To shed light on this case, Devorah Goldman suggests looking to the well-known passage in the book of Kings where Solomon decides between two women claiming to be the mother of the same baby:
The women [in 1Kings 3] had lived in the same house and had given birth within days of one another, yet one of their babies had tragically died. Each claimed that her healthy, living baby had been kidnapped by the other and replaced with the dead infant. To resolve the matter, Solomon ordered his servants to fetch a sword and to “divide the living child in two, and give half to one, and half to the other.” The true mother pleaded for her son to be given to her rival so long as he might be allowed to live, while the mother of the deceased child agreed with the verdict, stating, “Let it be neither mine nor yours, divide it.” Solomon immediately ordered that the child be given to the woman who had begged for his life. . . .
The decision of the hospitals and courts to disregard not only the feelings of the parents in this case but also the efforts of foreign medical authorities to take responsibility for Alfie is confounding. . . . Particularly since [the hospital’s] medical staff admitted that they had not arrived at a diagnosis for Alfie, it is difficult to understand what lay at the heart of their decision to prevent his travel to Rome, and what they believed they stood to gain. . . .
In the story of Solomon, the woman who had kidnapped a child arguably had nothing left to lose by allowing another woman’s son to die. She had already lost a child. At least in this way, she would be able to maintain her pride and not be proved a liar. The case of Alfie Evans and Alder Hey [Hospital] may not be so different. The public challenge to their judgment, and Alfie’s subsequent independent breathing, might have embarrassed them. Their thinly veiled annoyance at the parents’ presumption suggests that this was a rare and bold move. By not allowing [Alfie] to leave, they might have believed they would be spared further humiliation and bureaucratic upheaval.
Like King Solomon, the courts in England were presented with a straightforward question: to whom does this child belong? To Solomon, the true parent was unquestionably the one willing to sacrifice for the child, to safeguard his life even at the expense of never seeing him again. This clarity may seem facile in a time of uncertain bioethics and questions regarding what it means to be alive. And yet, as Solomon also wrote, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”