Who could not feel sorrow for little Alfie Evans and his family? Young parents – very young – are desperate to keep their child alive. They will go to any lengths. There is something admirable about this fierce commitment to their son. They have been inspired to 'keep fighting' for Alfie against all the odds.
Sometimes, fights like this have happy endings – and it's these happy endings that keep hope alive. Maybe it can happen for us, they think. After all, we're fed on a daily diet of medical miracles. There are so many great stories. Every day, people are cured or a new treatment is announced. Surely, there are no limits to what medical science can do. The idea that a child might just die is unthinkable. And after all, who believes experts any more? Trust in our institutions has evaporated – why should doctors be any different?
Another thing that keeps hope alive is the support of people who tell them that they're doing the right thing. Sometimes these are people who are just moved by Alfie's plight and 'feel' he should be given every possible chance.
But some of them have other motivations. They locate his situation in a particular mental landscape. In their world, a pitiless state is intent on euthanising its unproductive citizens. The lives of children have no particular value. NHS resources are stretched; they don't want to waste them on Alfie. Doctors and nurses are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
In the minds of these campaigners, the courts and the medical profession are in league with each other, different parts of the Establishment protecting their own. They are godless, too, part of an atheist conspiracy to subvert our Christian values. Even Pope Francis is ignored.
Who wouldn't sympathise with a hope based on the love and prayers of people who genuinely care about Alfie, or on the medical miracles that so warm our hearts?
But a 'hope' that's grounded on nothing more than a suspicion of the secular state and a fanatical commitment to the 'rights' of parents against the professionalism of doctors is a different thing entirely. It's an illusion, and a particularly cruel and self-serving one.
And the trouble is that in a situation like this, it's easy for conspiracy theorists to get traction. 'Alfie' Twitter hashtags feature complaints about the 'disgusting and selfish decisions of Alder Hey Hospital', 'our disgusting government', the 'cruelty' of the UK; even, referring to the police on guard at the hospital, 'When did the British Bobby become an SS guard at an execution?'
30 police on guard outside baby Alfie Evans room as the doctors & nurses of Alder Hey conduct his execution.— Nick Donnelly (@ProtecttheFaith) April 23, 2018
When did the British Bobby become an SS guard at an execution?
Alfie has an undiagnosed illness that's left him in a coma. Doctors think it might be a DNA-related mitochondrial disease. It's terminal. His parents and the hospital have fought a succession of court cases, all of which have gone against the parents; they want to take him to an Italian hospital. British doctors disagree; they say it won't make any difference and want to spare him the trauma of travel. He's been removed from his ventilator; death was not instantaneous, but in all likelihood it's going to come.
And that is terribly, terribly sad. In the rich West we have been fooled by technology: we think that because there have been so many victories, every battle against illness must end in victory. We don't, in the end, help people by fostering that illusion.
There comes a point at which doctors have to hold up their hands and pass the baton to the priest. What will matter in the future to this family is how they are cared for and helped to grieve. And what will not help for one moment is if they are taught, by ideological zealots, to blame the courts, or the hospital, or the government, for what has happened. There's no reason to suppose, in fact, that everyone hasn't done their absolute best.
The best we can hope for Alfie is that he passes peacefully into eternity. The best we can hope for his parents is that they accept this with grace and find peace for themselves.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods