Fiction portentously predicts reality in Anthony Trollope's dystopian vision of state-sponsored euthanasia
Imagine a country where you are obliged by law to submit yourself to euthanasia at the age of 67 and a half, spending the last year of your life in seclusion awaiting the death sentence. Such a country was Britannula, an island somewhere off the coast of New Zealand and a British colony turned republic. It was dreamed up by Anthony Trollope in one of his lesser-known novels The Fixed Period (written incidentally when he was 67 and only a few months away from his own death) and we are indebted to our friend Myron Ebell for drawing it to our notice.
This black satire, published in 1882, envisaged such a state of affairs occurring 100 years into the future, in 1980 (when the zippiest form of transport, thought Trollope, would be a steam-powered tricycle). The architect of state-sponsored euthanasia is President John Neverbend, an arch-rationalist who is convinced that it is the answer to society’s problems, saving the old from “the horrors of poverty” and saving the rest of the country so much money in looking after them that its people would soon be “the richest people on God’s earth”.
Unfortunately for Neverbend, those same people start doubting the wisdom of the Fixed Period as the time approaches for the first victim of the policy to be “deposited” in the “college” for the shortly-to-die, particularly as he is one of the island’s most popular citizens and still at the height of his powers. They alert the British government, which sends a gunboat to re-annexe Britannula, arrest Neverbend and cart him off to England.
True to his name, Neverbend is undaunted by this setback, consoling himself that his doctrine will one day be widely accepted, even if it takes a further 100 years. When one considers the growing enthusiasm in Britain for so-called “mercy killing”, euthanasia by another name, who is to say he was wrong?