I’m just back from watching the controversial new film Me Before You, which opened on Friday, June 3, to modest reviews and much protest from disability rights groups like Not Dead Yet. Both the film’s screenplay and the best-selling book upon which it's based were written by novelist JoJo Moyes.
The film’s main characters are Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games) and Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones). Will was an up-and-coming star in the world of banking until he was hit by a motorcycle and rendered a quadriplegic. Lou is an out-of-work waitress who lives at home. She needs a new job to help support her family, because her father is unemployed. The local employment office sends Lou to interview for a position as caregiver for Will.
When Lou arrives for her job interview, conducted by Will’s mother, she’s inappropriately dressed (wearing a suit she’s borrowed from her mother), and woefully unqualified, since she has no experience doing this sort of work. But Will’s mother sees a young, fresh face that she hopes will help Will change his mind about traveling to Switzerland in six months’ time to end his life. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland but not England, where the story is set.
The movie unfolds as quirky Lou arrives for work each day, shrugging off her mother’s clothes and dressing in kooky new outfits. Will is anything but interested in her bubbly personality, even scolding her to keep the chitchat to a minimum. It’s not until Will’s ex-girlfriend arrives with his ex-best friend to tell him that they are engaged that Will begins to open up and accept friendship and companionship from Lou.
One day, Lou overhears Will’s parents talking about his plan to go to Switzerland. It is very clear that Will’s father is set on supporting his son’s decision, while his mother is horrified at the thought of it. As Will and Lou begin to show affection for one another, his mother thinks a change of mind is a possibility. Lou thinks so too as she sets out to plan trips and evenings out. At one point, they attend a concert together, to which Lou wears a stunning red dress and Will a tux. Afterwards, as they linger in the car, Will says, “I don’t want to go in just yet . . . I just . . . want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just for a few minutes more.”
Will struggles with his new life. He loves Paris, but he doesn’t want to go unless he can go walking. He resists eating in restaurants because he doesn’t want people to watch him being fed. He refuses to surrender to Lou’s pleas for him to live, because he feels he won’t be the best man for her.
Suicidal Patients Need Psychological and Spiritual Care
What Will truly needed was spiritual care and counseling, but there is no evidence in the film that any was ever provided to him. Why wasn’t this part of the story? A family as wealthy as his certainly could have provided for not only his physical care, but also his psychological and spiritual care. According to psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Kheriaty,
Suicidal individuals typically do not want to die; they want to escape what they perceive as intolerable suffering. When comfort or relief is offered, in the form of more-adequate treatment for depression, better pain management, or more-comprehensive palliative care, the desire for suicide wanes.
People like Will need doctors who take seriously the Hippocratic oath neither to give nor suggest a deadly “solution” under the guise of treatment or medical care.
In spite of his blossoming relationship with Lou, Will’s mind is not changed. He still wants to end his life. All that is left is for everyone to rally around him and support him in his decision. Lou tells him he’s selfish and that she doesn’t want any part of it. Her father reprimands her, telling her that it’s Will’s choice, his life to do with what he wants. Lou’s sister also tells her that she needs to go and be with him as he dies—that it is the right thing to do. Will’s mother gives up on her hopes for her son having a change of heart. The one steadfast voice comes from Lou’s mother. She declares, “Some choices you don’t get to make. It’s no better than murder!”
We see Lou’s acquiescence; she moves from believing Will is selfish to reluctantly accepting his decision. She has no tools at her disposal for doing anything else. No one is available to provide support to her in her desire for Will to live. While Lou’s mother is outspoken about Will’s decision, her rejection of this act goes nowhere in the film, and she never speaks about it with her daughter.
There is no support for Will’s mother either. Her husband is adamant that they must support their son in his choice. His words echo the rhetoric of the assisted suicide movement, which tells us all that we must simply acquiesce in the expansion of new laws for medical murder. And not only must we tolerate suicide as an autonomous choice, we are told that we must legalize and celebrate the direct and active killing of patients by physicians.
Death Is Not the Answer
The “slippery slope” of assisted suicide flows logically from two dangerously mistaken intellectual principles: radical personal autonomy and death as an answer to human suffering. John Finnis summed it up well when testifying in the House of Lords against the “Joffe Bill” that sought to legalize assisted suicide in the United Kingdom, a bill that thankfully was defeated:
If autonomy is the principle or the main concern, why is the lawful killing restricted to terminal illness and unbearable suffering? If suffering is the principle or concern, why is the lawful killing restricted to terminal illness?
Finnis’s point is that regardless of whatever restrictions might initially be placed into a law that legalizes assisted suicide, once the two intellectual principles of assisted suicide advocacy come to be accepted by a broad swath of the general public and the medical professions, there is little chance that eligibility for assisted suicide will remain limited to the dying for very long. This paradigm of expanding assisted suicide and euthanasia has already proven true in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium.
If Will didn’t want to live as a quadriplegic, could Lou, by the same logic, have been permitted to choose death if she maintained that her life was not worth living without Will? And, if not, why not? What good reasons could be given to Lou in the face of her desire to exercise her radical autonomy in order to seek death in order to relieve her suffering?
Of course we would rightly employ all avenues of care to assist Lou in helping her cope, and no one would ever suggest that she end her life as a means of ending her suffering. But surely you can see that once we have accepted this radical notion of autonomy—my life, my right, my choice—then eventually it must and will become anyone’s right, no matter what their circumstance, to appeal to a physician to aid them in their death.
The title of the film—Me Before You—is curious. It left me wondering whether the message was meant to be that “me and my needs come before you and your needs.” If so, then this story is indeed a tale of autonomy run amok—a result of the radical and ludicrous idea that we do not live connected to, dependent upon, or in relationship with others. Lou pushed against this idea, clearly seeing the two of them together in relationship, deeply connected to one another just as they were. But Will could not accept his new condition or see beyond it to the importance of the relationships he had with others.
Live Boldly and Live Well
The final scene of the film takes place in Switzerland, in a white home, full of all white furnishings. Everything is very clean and very sterile. Will’s parents are in a living room, and Will is in bed in the bedroom. Lou finally arrives, and Will tells her to call his parents in. The medication is obviously taking over, his life ebbing away. He tells Lou to live boldly and to live well—just live.
Richard Propes, a man born with spina bifida who suffers from hydrocephaly and scoliosis and has no feet, wrote in his review of Me Before You, “life can be both ways—you can need help with every single aspect of your life AND be an absolutely amazing human being. They aren’t mutually exclusive.” Something great and profound has been lost if we cannot see ourselves as both responsible to and for another, able to both give and receive care from others. Are we not our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?
Me Before You was produced with a $20 million budget. By opening weekend it had, by early estimates, nearly recovered this cost, and will probably be a modest box office hit. Perhaps the many protests from disability groups will be successful, and our culture will have a renewed conversation about the deadly ideas around physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, and the deeply mistaken notion of a life not worth living. These disabled activists rightly reject the view that they would be better off dead. They are the ones who have chosen to live—and to do so boldly and well.
Jennifer Lahl is the Founder and President of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and producer of the documentary films, Eggsploitation, Anonymous Father’s Day, and Breeders: A Subclass of Women? Her latest film, Maggie’s Story, tells of a ten-time egg donor and her battle with stage-four cancer.