Court rules gravely ill UK child cannot travel to Vatican hospital

LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) - A British court rejected an appeal on Wednesday from parents of a gravely ill 23-month-old boy to take their son to Italy for treatment, a case that has drawn international attention, including from Pope Francis.

FILE PHOTO: Thomas Evans, father of terminally-ill child Alfie, attends Pope Francis' Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Alfie Evans has a rare, degenerative disease and has been in a semi-vegetative state for more than a year.

Medical experts in Britain agree that more treatment would be futile but his parents want to take him to the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu children’s hospital in Rome, which has offered to care for him.

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, northwest England, which has been treating Alfie since December 2016, said London’s Court of Appeal had rejected applications from his parents to take the boy to Italy.

“Our top priority is to continue to provide Alfie with the care he deserves and to ensure his comfort, dignity and privacy are maintained at this time,” the hospital said in a statement.

The case has provoked strong feeling over whether judges, doctors or parents have the right to decide on a child’s life.

On Monday, Alfie’s life-support equipment was switched off after a court ruling but he has confounded expectations by continuing to breathe unaided.

On Tuesday, the High Court refused to allow his parents to take him to Rome after the Italian government granted him citizenship, leading to Wednesday’s appeal.

“I renew my appeal that the suffering of his parents may be heard and that their desire to seek new forms of treatment may be granted,” Pope Francis tweeted on Monday.

Polish President Andrzej Duda has also lent his support, saying in a Tweet: “Alfie Evans must be saved! His brave little body has proved again that the miracle of life can be stronger than death.”

Alfie’s parents Tom Evans and Kate James say they should have the right to decide what is best for the child.

“I’m not giving up because Alfie is breathing away, he’s not suffering, he’s not struggling, he’s been given no (...) drugs, he’s fighting,” the boy’s father told reporters.

The case echoes that of another British baby, Charlie Gard, who became the subject of a bitter dispute last July between his parents and doctors over whether he should be taken to the United States for experimental treatment.

A judge in the Gard case ruled it was not in the interests of the 11-month-old baby, whose struggle with a rare genetic disorder also drew an outpouring of sympathy from the Pope along with U.S. President Donald Trump, to undergo further treatment. Charlie died a few days after the court decision.

Alfie’s situation has stirred up similar strong emotions, especially among a crowd of supporters calling themselves “Alfie’s Army” camped outside the hospital.

Police said they had been made aware of a number of social media posts in relation to the case and warned that anyone sending malicious or threatening messages would be investigated.

Writing by Elisabeth O’Leary; editing by Stephen Addison/Mark Heinrich