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Press: Critics struggle with Parris’s unflinching clarity

12 April 2024


IT SEEMS to me inevitable that the next Labour government will legislate for assisted dying: it is one of the very few things that it can do which will cost nothing, upset few people, and appear as a moral advance to people far outside the progressive Left.

Take Matthew Parris in The Times a few weeks back (Quotes, 5 April), whose argument had an unflinching clarity: “I don’t dispute the objectors’ belief that once assisted dying becomes normalised we will become more apt to ask ourselves for how much longer we can justify the struggle. Is life still giving us more pleasure than pain? How much is all this costing relatives and the health service? How much of a burden are we placing on those who love us? How much of a burden are we placing upon ourselves?. . .

“But it’s not as if these questions are new: they already haunt and have always haunted many afflicted by intolerable misery, indignity or suffering. That’s simply how people think: it’s natural. It’s right. If assisted dying becomes common and widely accepted, hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — will consider choosing this road when the time comes; and in some cases, even ask themselves whether it would be selfish not to.”

What was wrong, he went on to ask, with the thick end of the wedge? And here his argument danced nimbly from the supposed benefits to the individual to the undoubted economic benefits to society of large-scale euthanasia of the useless and incontinent.

“Our culture is changing its mind about the worth of old age when coupled with crippling degeneration, incapacity, indignity and often suffering. If I’m right, our growing interest in assisted dying may reflect a largely unconscious realisation that we simply cannot afford extreme senescence or desperate infirmity for as many such individuals as our society is producing.”

This piece scandalised a lot of people, me among them. Sonia Sodha, in The Observer, wrote that she had moved away in the past decade from support for assisted dying: “We are not all autonomous islands floating in a sea of humanity; we are highly influenced by each other and by cultural norms. . . The risk of coercion goes beyond intimate partners in a society riven with ageism and anti-disability prejudice; what happened to older people in care homes during Covid is just one example.”

The weak point of this argument is that Parris could reply “So what? Why should the individual be prized above the collective? How, indeed, can a collective survive if its interests can never take precedence over those of its constituent individuals?”

THE Financial Times dodged these questions when, last weekend, it came out in favour of assisted dying. The argument there was pitched entirely at a level of individual freedom, opening with a sentence that framed the whole problem as one for rich people deliberating in their right minds: “If people spent as much time thinking about how they might die as they do about, say, their retirement, many more nations would already have legalised assisted dying. Too many people with terminal illnesses are condemned to a lingering painful death, denied of dignity, in a faceless hospital ward.”

In fact, the FT leader was uncharacteristically weak in its refusal to meet opponents’ arguments head on. It proposed exactly the sort of compromises that have been swept aside in Canada and Belgium, and will be swept aside here. “Legislation would have to be restricted to those with a terminal illness and relatively short predicted time left to live (say six months). . . This would mean precluding some terrible non-fatal degenerative diseases, major physical disability, dementia and any mental condition.”

Underpinning all these arguments is an assumption that dignity is a human right. But where does this right come from? Why do we suppose that it exists? Only the Nietzschean Parris denies that it matters, but none among his opponents defends it coherently. The philosopher Kathleen Stock, in UnHerd, put the problem clearly: “All that is left for most of us are vague intuitions and orphaned remnants of moral reasoning inherited from a formerly Christian outlook.”

AT THIS point in the argument, I turned to the Vatican. The document that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith released on Monday met Parris’s challenge head on. The dignity of every human being was “infinite” and “exists beyond all circumstances”, it said, quoting successive popes. It went on to say: “This principle, which is fully recognizable even by reason alone, underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights.”

“Fully recognisable by reason alone”? Who, exactly are they trying to kid? Yet, on reflection, even this makes sense. If human dignity is finite — as every observation would suggest — then it can be valued against other goods and traded off for them. This is what Parris proposes, and it is also how we all act in practice. Reason demands that human dignity be infinite and ontological only in the sense that a finite and contingent dignity cannot do the work that we require of it.

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