Me Before You: Portraying Euthanasia in Film
In early June, Me Before You, a film set in a small town just outside modern-day London, was released in theaters. The movie depicts a budding relationship between a young woman and a man from vastly different backgrounds. Lou has been trapped in the same town her whole life doing the same mundane tasks, while Will lived a lavish life of adventure and exhilaration until it was altered drastically after a motorcycle accident. The accident caused him to become a quadriplegic, ending his life as he knew it.
Lou was employed by Will’s mother after he had endured two years of unsuccessful intensive physical therapy and painful bouts of pneumonia, both of which left him feeling angry and desolate. Lou’s job was to simply look after him and provide emotional support, if emotions besides contempt could be dragged out of Will. The film reveals to the audience roughly halfway through that Lou was hired six months before Will was planning to be euthanized in Switzerland. His mother hoped that if Lou spent enough time with Will in the six months leading up to his euthanization, her unique zest for life would change Will’s mind.
Society is no stranger to the topic of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, in fact, practiced and tolerated infanticide, active euthanasia, and suicide. Countries like Colombia and Belgium allow for active euthanasia–meaning the doctor administers the life-ending drugs. Some countries allow only for physician-assisted suicide (PAS), wherein a patient requests access to drugs that he or she will take to end their lives. Examples of these nations that have legalized PAS include Mexico and five of the United States. However, Will’s case addresses the core discrepancies in the fine print of euthanasia’s moral ends—how far is too far?
The depiction of Will’s reasons for being euthanized are that which meet a standard criterion for euthanization: unbearable pain. What he lacks, however, is a terminal illness. Many consider it acceptable if the individual will die due to the pain-inflicting mechanism- for example, a person enduring cancer treatments that only prolong his life by six months. However, there is a large grey area between whether or not someone should be allowed to be euthanized for non-terminal illnesses. Some of the more controversial cases include those in which blind, anorexic, and autistic people have been euthanized.
At the end of the film, Will admits to falling in love with Lou, but decides to move forward with his euthanization plans because he does not want to impose his life’s limitations on her. Will’s reason for continuing with his euthanization is solely based on this reasoning; after all, he told Lou she makes him want to live again. One thing Will misses in making this judgment is that while Lou’s life before him seemed boring and sad, she had found the pleasure in doing simple tasks; the audience could see this in the beginning of the movie. Does Will not understand her previous life, or does he know better than she about what a meaningful life is? Does he have the right to make such a decision about Lou’s life—a decision which would deeply harm her for an unknown amount of time? If ethics truly is about harm reduction, an important aspect in analyzing the rightness of euthanasia cases is determining how much harm the action will cause to others as well.
The movie alludes to Will’s suicide attempt shortly before convincing his mother to allow him to be euthanized. If his suicidal actions are not indicative enough to imply Will is struggling with clinical depression, he wakes up wanting the day to be over and is unable to move past his disability. Unfortunately, nowhere in the movie is this depression addressed. He is not and has not received psychological therapy and is not on antidepressants. That being said, is it acceptable to euthanize someone with an untreated mental disorder? Even if the person no longer wants to continue her life, is she in the right state to make a decision like that? Mental disorders are something that societies worldwide still struggle to deal with. Films offer a look into the mind of a culture, so what does this look say about England’s or the United States’ view of what is proper for mentally ill individuals? One man posted a response to Me Before You’s IMDb page, saying that while he has been a quadriplegic for sixteen years and has contemplated suicide multiple times, “life is worth living. We live in a world of opportunities.” Furthermore, he expressed deep concern for the message the film sends to anyone with a type of disability and the value their life has or ought to have. This post reflects the inability of the film to go in-depth about Will’s decision-making process.
The book which this movie is based on is, as books usually are, much more thorough in fleshing out the nuances in every step of the plot; also, as usual, this movie is confined to a two-hour time limit. This raises the question of whether or not a medium should be used in illustrating an ethical dilemma if it does not have the resources to properly show the deep considerations the final decision takes. On one hand, the purpose of films and other artistic mediums is to express a worldview, which would imply that the artist can portray anything he wishes. On the other hand, films by nature are broadcast publicly and consumed en masse by their audiences. Because of their broad reach, it becomes more crucial for filmmakers to consider the far-reaching effects of their messages. Me Before You sets out to tackle a slew of the ethical dilemmas surrounding euthanasia. One must consider, however, whether it is morally acceptable to address such an ethically grey topic as euthanasia within the constraints of film.