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Welcome to Baroness Warnock’s perfect world of total pleasure
The movement to remove all suffering from life takes another step forward, calling for people with dementia to die for the good of all.
The 1970s were famously described by Doonesbury as a kidney stone of a decade. It certainly had more than its share of dystopian movies featuring ridiculous plots, atrocious haircuts and worse acting. Why would we want to take our ethical inspiration from them?
Yet this is effectively what Britain's best-known bioethicist, 84-year-old Baroness Mary Warnock, proposed last month.
Cast your mind back to such classics as Soylent Green (1973) and Logan's Run (1976). Both reflect the 1970s obsession with overpopulation and resource depletion. In the first one, people were encouraged to "go home" via gentle, soothing voluntary euthanasia. In the second they were obliged to "renew" themselves at the predetermined age of 30. If they escaped, they were hunted down and terminated by Sandmen like Logan, not exactly warm and fuzzy types. (For instance Logan's entire seduction repertoire seems to consist of: "You're beautiful. Let's have sex." What girl wouldn't swoon?)
In the end, both films warn against a future in which humans who have become too old or bothersome are required to commit suicide in order to, in Ebenezer Scrooge's immortal phrase, "decrease the surplus population". Whether by slow poison amid images of nature and classical music in Soylent Green or by lurid vapourization in an elaborate public ceremony in Logan's Run, it's all perfectly ghastly. And increasingly believable.
In fact, after reading Baroness Warnock's latest contribution to the euthanasia debate, it seems that Logan's Run must have been one of her favourite films. She told a Church of Scotland magazine that "If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives -– your family's lives –- and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service."
She didn't mean it in a good way.
Indeed, she continued, not only should you have the right to commit suicide, but you may even have a duty to do so: "I'm absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die," she said, "but I feel there's a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they're a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die. Actually I've just written an article called 'A Duty to Die?' for a Norwegian periodical. I wrote it really suggesting that there's nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so for the sake of others as well as yourself."
It makes a certain gruesome sense. If you live hedonistically in what the tagline for Logan's Run calls "a perfect world of total pleasure", you can't very well imagine sharing it with folks who are old, sick, drooling or sexually unattractive. In Logan's society, nobody is fat, ugly, or over 30. Science delivers a life of ease and pleasure, one orderly to the point of sterility, with all aspects of reproduction taken care of by a master computer running elaborate laboratories. At one point, asked by a Sandman friend whether he knows the "seed mother" of the newborn son he views behind nursery glass, Logan replies: "Of course not! I'm curious, not sick!" Thus fetching young things in revealing outfits (Farrah Fawcett plays an important role here) are free to enjoy sex in a Mall of America environment uncomplicated by such pesky things as commitment or pregnancy.
It's extremely disturbing, and not just because I'm looking at 30 in the rear-view mirror. At the moment, I can afford to be glib. Thirty is still close, though behind me; I am healthy, and I usually manage to muddle through my days without outside assistance. I have nothing to fear from Baroness Warnock, who'd rather that the decrepit elderly off themselves in a selfless act of duty towards their carers and the publicly-funded health care system.
But when she concluded by suggesting the desirability of "licensing people to put others down", I had a hideous vision of myself clad in a crepe paper microskirt fleeing from an assassin in a desperate attempt to extend my life beyond 30. Where else can such thinking end?
Baroness Warnock has written a scary script for Britain's National Health Service, one which assumes that life is not worth living past the age of constant partying. But we can't all look like Farrah Fawcett (not a bad thing, either). Life is more than cute 20-somethings looking clueless in tacky tight clothes. So why is this eminent ethicist insisting on imitating bad 1970s sci-fi movies?
Brigitte Pellerin is a writer and broadcaster based in Ottawa.
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