March 31, 2024 - 1:30pm

When babies are born, they embody all the hopes and ambitions of their parents. Death is the extinguishing of that hope. It is a profound statement about humanity’s loss of ambition that we can see no issue with hastening death; that so many babies born today can expect an unprecedented length of life is seen not as a triumph, but instead as a problem that requires a dark solution.

Hence the distinct sinking feeling I got when reading Matthew Parris’s now viral Times article headlined: “We can’t afford a taboo on assisted dying.” In it, Parris attempts to deal with what he feels is the strongest argument held by opponents of assisted dying — that the terminally ill would be pressured to hasten the ends of their lives. He greets this possibility with open arms: “I believe this will indeed come to pass. And I would welcome it.” You see, there are simply too many old and infirm and it should be their social duty to ask themselves, “How much is all this costing relatives and the health service?”

More chilling than the notion that the NHS is now a hallowed church which the sinful should never enter is the notion that Parris feels no reticence in saying the quiet part out loud. For decades, campaigners for assisted dying have hidden behind calls for compassion, dignity and autonomy. Only sometimes did they let the odd quip about certain lives being “unaffordable” slip out. Usually, advocates shy away from a macabre calculus between life and the bottom line. But for Parris, slashing this taboo is progressive: “It will become common practice to pose the question without embarrassment, and to weigh the answer up.”

The problem is that people are increasingly posing that question, and the answer has not been good for the poor, the homeless, the disabled and even simply victims of injustice. In Canada, where what we call MAiD (medical assistance in dying) has been legalised since 2016, something that was once a stringent law intended only for the terminally ill has been gradually expanded.

People are requesting MAiD not because they want to die but because they can no longer afford to live. And incredibly, a growing portion of Canadians have no qualms offering MAiD to those whose only “affliction” is poverty. Academics suggest withholding MAiD from victims of injustice only causes “further harm”, since those injustices probably aren’t going away any time soon.

At first I thought that Parris just wasn’t considering the fact that legislation inevitably expands in these ways. Initially stringent safeguards inevitably fall on grounds of discrimination, pushing more and more groups into its purview. Urging the terminally ill to hasten their demise lest they be a “burden” on their families and society is bad enough.

But Parris doesn’t seem to mind the idea that it would eventually expand and come to be “seen as the normal road for many to take, and considered socially responsible — and even, finally, urged upon people”. He doesn’t qualify this last “people” with “terminally ill”. This is precisely what’s happening in Canada. It is not an example we should wish to follow.

We once dreamed of so much more. The Marquis de Condorcet, writing at the end of the 18th century, dreamed of a world in which the human lifespan would know of “no upper limit”. He could see the possibilities of a world just beyond the horizon in which humanity would realise its obstacles were not engrained in its nature nor inscribed by God, but out there in the world waiting to be understood and rooted out. Enlightenment philosophers had looked down into the cradle of the human subject at its birth — that subject that would be the bearer of liberty, equality, fraternity; that subject that for the first time in human history would decide its own fate.

But now it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this policy and the unabashed devaluing of “costly lives” is the final nail in the coffin of that hopeful era. In this world, there is no purpose beyond keeping the administrative machine rolling over from one year to the next.

I am glad for arguments like Parris’s that lay bare what the debate about assisted dying is really about. It’s not about compassion and it’s not about autonomy. It’s about hastening the demise not just of the terminally ill, but of the subject that was born with all the hopes of the future in front of it.

Ashley Frawleyis a sociologist, a columnist at Compact and COO of Sublation Media.