“An intermittent safeguard for health”

Guest post by Matteo Winkler, École des hautes études commerciales de Paris

I thought I’d drop you a few lines to explain how I view the Italian intervention on the case of Alfie Evans.

On 24 April, the Italian government, acting upon a proposal presented by the Minister of Interior Marco Minniti, resolved to grant Alfie Italian citizenship, allegedly “in consideration of the exceptional interest for the national community to ensure to the child further therapeutic developments, in the protection of prevailing humanitarian values that, in the case at stake, pertain to the safeguarding of health.”

Besides the serpentine wording that usually characterises ideological statements like this, where the most important part is the subtext rather than the text, the reference to the “exceptional interest of the national community” clearly aims at establishing a strong connection with the requirements imposed by the statute of 1991 on the acquisition of Italian citizenship, among which is “an exceptional interest of the State”.

As a law professor, it is hard for me to say which “interest” is at stake here, let alone an exceptional one.  There is no doubt that Alfie’s case is exceptional, at least statistically speaking.  But it is one for individual citizens to express their own opinions on the matter and maybe assert moral or ethical principles along with them, even led by personal empathy or religious belief; it’s quite another thing to move a whole governmental machine to affirm such principles.

Clearly, the objective pursued by the government’s move is to trigger the mechanisms that usually result from having the life of a certain country’s citizen threatened in the territory of another state.  Diplomacy can now act in turn, and Italy has a right, under international law, to complain about the citizen’s condition.  Here, in particular, Italy could appeal to the Foreign Office in order to have the child transferred to Italy to be treated, as the parents actually did, but I hardly see how the UK could grant such a request.

First of all, the matter is in the hands of UK courts, and not even the UK government, let alone the Foreign Office, has a say.  Like it or not, the rule of law works this way, and for reasons that cannot be seriously questioned here.  Second, and most importantly, UK courts have expressly decided that “preventing [parents] from removing Alfie from hospital does not breach their rights”.  If the baby has to stay in the hospital according to UK law and UK courts, there seems to be no way the Italian government could concretely impact the case even after having declared Alfie an Italian citizen.

On top of that, creating a legal situation (Alfie’s new citizenship) just to obtain a factual benefit relating to a specific individual (his transfer to a health facility in Italy) sounds like an abuse of law to me.  It reminds me of the story, told by Cicero, of Publius Clodius, a patrician who arranged to be adopted by a plebeian just to be able to run for the office of tribune of the plebs.  As Clodius used adoption, a perfectly legitimate vehicle to form a family, to obtain a concrete though purely political result, so the Italian government is using citizenship, an important vehicle of inclusion and integration (and pride, someone would say), just to make a political statement.  This is wrong and silly, and constitutionally debatable.

Speaking now as an Italian citizen, I am simply appalled by the government’s move, which is politically problematic.  Given that for at least one year and half the Parliament has discussed the recognition of citizenship to young second-generation immigrants born in Italy without reaching an agreement, allegedly because of the country’s strong opposition to the measure, to grant Alfie’s citizenship is a slap in the face of the thousands of children who have lived in Italy since birth and cannot count on the same political engagement by the government.  There is an evident hypocrisy here.  The Minister of  Foreign Affairs, Angelino Alfano, who promoted the citizenship initiative in favour of Alfie, comes from the same coalition that in 2009 proposed to criminalise doctors who assisted illegal immigrants.  What an intermittent safeguard for health!  The point is that Alfie is foreigner to us much more than are the immigrants who live in Italy since decades, but his extreme condition definitely generates more sympathy and empathy.

Also under the spotlight is the Catholic Church.  As a famous Italian comedian said, “Of life, we care only from conception to birth; after fifteen minutes, no one cares about it anymore”.  The Church’s campaigns fully reflect this statement.  For Alfie, the Vatican has mobilised great resources, including a prestigious health facility in Rome, the Bambino Gesù, to host Alfie and offer him the cures he needs.  This is commendable, of course.  But what about English doctors who are assisting and assisted Alfie in the last months?  Walter Ricciardi, the President of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, said that they “sometimes use inhuman methods” (see here).  Where he takes this from, of course he doesn’t explain.

What does Alfie have to do with us?  Everything: his and his parent’s suffering makes them some of us.  Empathy is a primary human feeling and an essential component of our societies.  But the least thing we need now is a political statement that makes their situation even more legally intricate of what it is.  Politics should stay out of this.

Believers would say we have to pray, and this is fine. To pray, not to prepare an aeroplane full of doctors to bring a little defenceless baby suffering to his bones to a place where he had and has no intention to go.

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