I have followed so many debates and discussions about assisted dying and euthanasia that I had almost begun to get the impression that there was a sort of death-wish among certain sectors of society. We looked with dismay at events in Belgium and the Netherlands where, it seemed, doctors were permitted to end life because a person was depressed, or considered life not worth living to an advanced age.
But the advent of this coronavirus emergency has revealed something much more positive: that there is an overwhelming, general instinct to preserve and protect human life.
Some older commentators have suggested that people over 70 need not be protected at all costs. Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Conservative MP, is one of the writers who has been making this point: he feels he is entitled to do so as he is now in that demographic himself. Those past the three-score-years-and-ten are moving towards the departure lounge anyway: should the economic future of younger generations be sacrificed to spare some oldsters, who are evidently more vulnerable to the infection? (Most of those who have died have been over 70, or have underlying health problems.)
Yet social media like Twitter and Facebook have been full of text messages about older people being valued and loved, and how deeply unjust and callous it would be not to give them every possible protection and care. Especially around Mother’s Day last Sunday, floods of messages appeared saying how ardently elderly mums and grannies were cherished.
I have been genuinely touched by how often that view has been expressed – and it’s a counterpoint to the creeping death-cult in the assisted-suicide discourse.
Actually, if it does come to stark choices about medical care and facilities, I do think that younger people should have priority. They have more responsibilities and their vigor and energies will serve the common good more widely. But that is the language of priorities, not the pessimism of deliberately bringing life to an end.
The Nest is a new Glasgow-based BBC Television drama about the uncertainties of surrogacy, which started on Sunday last. Emily and Dan are an affluent couple living in a splendid loch-side house; Kaya, an 18-year-old teenager who grew up in a children’s home, dwells in a shabby council block. After a chance encounter, Emily, desperate for a baby after many miscarriages and failed fertility efforts, comes to hope Kaya could be a surrogate and carry the last embryo she has in storage.
Is it plausible that a sophisticated couple would offer £50,000 to an unreliable teenager when the social services, and even the law, think the deal is dodgy? And yet, we know that people, and especially women, will sometimes go to any lengths to have a child. Both Dan (Martin Compston, from Line of Duty) and Emily (Sophie Rundle) keep telling each other that their embryo “is so precious”. And the sullen lassie, as Dan calls Kaya (Mirren Mack), does express a kind of awed altruism about carrying a child for someone else. Pregnancy is seen as something miraculous.
The Scottish social services are conscientious in supervising Kaya’s somewhat purposeless lifestyle – though their exhortations that she self-improves through education fall on deaf ears and foul-mouthed responses. Another message is signalled, too: that kids who grow up in care are, by definition, damaged. Emily’s husband Dan keeps making that point – is Kaya a worthy mother for their precious baby? We shall see – there are five episodes in all. Last Sunday’s is available on iPlayer.
Stephen Fry has offered some sensible guidance about the current crisis. When sequestered at home, he says, draw up a timetable for yourself. Organise the day according to a specific plan. Ration the number of times you check on news bulletins about the virus’s progress – say twice daily only. If we must be walled up, use the time to learn something new – he is teaching himself calligraphy, via the Internet. And take plenty of time to do all the little things lovingly.
Very wise, surely. As I’m chronically in danger of overdosing on news bulletins, I must especially bear in mind that piece of advice.