Sometimes it’s wrong to choose life over death

Cryogenics grabs attention, and the story in yesterday’s Times about a dying teenager’s wish to be frozen grabbed mine. How could it not? A brave young woman; a desperate hope; a parental split about whether her corpse should be frozen . . . this is the stuff of nightmares and dreams.

Since long before H G Wells, science fiction has engaged us not only through the thrill of the fantastical but because unchaining the imagination unchains us to wonder where we’re going. The judge’s ruling in this case fell short of large speculations: he said that the issue was not cryonic preservation but a family dispute about a daughter’s wishes.

After the legal disputation dies away, though, what stays in the layman’s mind is what this dying girl hoped for: no more than what Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus must seek; a kind of immortality, be it in a life hereafter or through reincarnation in this world. Faith offers hope that when the lights go out it isn’t over. Science and science fiction can do the same.

Snap-freezing yourself into immortality is surely a medicaldead-end. But the 14-year-old’s hope that (in her words) “I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer” is not misplaced. They very likely will. Maybe for all cancers. Already we’re making enormous strides in the forestalling of death and smaller strides in the prolonging of useful life. Our time in the light is already longer than it was for our forbears, while our twilights are lengthening fast. We’re ever more successful in holding back the night.

However, I worry about the twilight: not for myself, I shall know what to do, but for an era whose lust for longevity, if not immortality, borders on the indecent. We want to live on — sans teeth, eyes, brain, sans everything — but for what?

We complain that dementia is “on the increase”. True, but only in the sense that increasing numbers are living on into a third act when dementia always did loom. I know that there are many, many examples of happiness that stays after reason fades (happiness for carers, too) and I love my Times colleague Alice Thomson’s writing about her father; but I have to reflect that this is not the experience of most people. For most, it’s wretched.

Readers who have followed me over decades may remember references to my faithful secretary, Eileen Wright, who kept my life from chaos for 35 years and made virtual pen-friends of many Times correspondents. They write to ask me how she is. She will never read this so I shall be candid. She barely exists. It was very sudden. She’s now as comfortable as anyone who has lost her reason, memory, power of speech, mobility and (to be delicate) all physical control, can be.

I am one of her powers of attorney, and, because she had considerable savings and wished — while she was able to wish — to remain in her flat, we’ve seen to it that she stays, supported by what amounts to 24-hour care from a kindly lady with assistants. Eileen slumps in front of the television, fed and cleaned and staring at she knows-not-what. It’s costing about £2,000 a week and soon we’ll have to bite the bullet and move her to a care home — or she’ll end up blocking a hospital bed as I have seen so many other poor old folk doing.

I hate it. I hate my regular visits, hours on the Tube to sit before someone you loved who’s hardly there, trying to make conversation in case she might understand. It leaves her unmoved. It leaves me miserable. The only satisfaction either of us receives is my own smug feeling of virtue. I shall carry on visiting until she dies because that’s how I’ve been brought up; but it’s pointless.

I believe she’s left everything to charity and I know, I really do, that she would rather it went to Kew Gardens and cats’ homes: not spent like this, not living like this, not burning public funds in the shape of GPs, social workers, diabetes reports and eye specialists.

This is the everyday experience of millions of caring relatives and friends in today’s Britain, most of them sacrificing far more than I do, and few who can pay, as we do, for someone else to wash and dress and change the nappies. Eileen’s story is, I’m afraid, much more common than a handful of sunnier stories in inspirational columns in newspapers and magazines. It’s just sad, just a miserable burden, and there is no silver lining.

When does “life”, in any meaningful sense, end? When should it? How much room is there on our planet for contemporaneous human lives and could we — should society — reach a shared understanding about the limits? The limit can’t simply be age: at 90 my mother is still positive, still sharp, still giving, still having a whale of a time; my father’s life should have ended many years before it did. Nor will I enter into the arguments here about assisted dying, euthanasia or suicide: hotly contested, these will reverberate until we are honest with ourselves.

Instead I’ll leave you with one set of facts, one suggestion, and one prediction. The facts are that from 2012 to 2032 in our country the populations of 65 to 84-year-olds and of the over-85s are set to increase by 39 and 106 per cent respectively, and it will not be long before half of all NHS spending is on those over 65.

My suggestion is this. We must stop clinging to the medieval belief that “life” is a spark that is either present or absent. Life is only a word: there is no simple corresponding thing that it denotes. Between life and death, between the animate and the inanimate, is a continuum, a sliding scale. Eileen is partly alive.

My prediction is that because cultures as well as individuals have a Darwinian instinct for self-preservation, a point will be reached when those in society who are mostly giving will want to curb the demands of those who are mostly taking.

Matthew Parris, a South African, born and raised, British political writer, formerly a Conservative Member of Parliament.

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