In a new film audiences are taught it’s better and maybe even more romantic to die than to live with a disability. Some qualified voices strongly protest.
The culture of death is making major inroads this month. With a new California physician-assisted suicide law going into effect, the efforts of so-called “right to die” advocates like the late Brittany Maynard seem to have paid off. And now a new film targets our imagination by portraying suicide as merciful, dignified, even romantic.
“Me Before You,” adapted from the novel by Jojo Moyes, is about a rich young playboy who’s paralyzed from the neck down due to a motorcycle accident. While the film starts out on an encouraging note, its conclusion has left many disabled reviewers upset. And for good reason.
After his accident, businessman and heir Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin), wants to end his life rather than face a lifetime paralyzed and stuck in a wheelchair. But Louisa Clark (played by Emilia Clarke), has other plans and attempts to change his mind. She spends six months taking him to concerts, horse races, and tropical getaways, hoping to show him that life as a quadriplegic is still worth living. Of course in the process, they fall in love—a fact that makes it especially hard when Will decides to go through with his plan to die.
This ham-fisted ending has the disabled community asking Hollywood: Why do you want us dead?
The marketing for “Me Before You” featured the hashtag #LiveBoldly. One Twitter user with disability retorted, “Do you really want us to #LiveBoldly, or … just … #DieQuickly?”
Wheelchair-bound actress and comedienne Liz Carr complained that Hollywood seems to have only one solution for people like her: “death.” “When non-disabled people talk of suicide,” she told The Guardian, “they’re discouraged and offered prevention … When a disabled person talks of it, though, suddenly the conversation is overtaken with words like ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy.’”
Writing at Life Site News, Alex Schadenberg with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition calls the movie “insidious.” The main character’s death, he explains, is depicted as noble and life-affirming. “Not only is death portrayed as better than living with a disability,” he writes, “but the ultimate act of love, for a person who lives with a disability, is death.”
Some try to defend the movie and physician-assisted suicide by insisting that so-called “death with dignity” is a private, individual decision. But as our friend Joni Eareckson Tada pointed out in a 2014 open letter to Brittany Maynard, it’s not just private. An individual’s decision to commit suicide in the midst of an illness or disability—whether that individual is real or on the silver screen—shapes how our culture treats others in the same situation.
And Joni, for anyone who doesn’t know, is in the same situation as the film’s main character. Paralyzed at age 17, she’s spent decades advocating on behalf of the dignity of those with disability, and proclaiming the equal and inherent dignity of all human beings. In her statement about the film, she asks why it conveys the impression that “marriage to someone with quadriplegia is too hard, too demanding,” and just not possible. “As a quadriplegic who’s been married for nearly 34 years,” she writes, “I can say for certain that my husband and I have a deep and satisfying relationship, mostly because—not in spite of—my severe disability.”
But my favorite response to “Me Before You” comes from eleven-year-old Ella Frech. Writing at Aleteia, this young girl asks the folks behind this movie, “Did you even do any research … ? Did you ask people in chairs if they’d rather be a corpse than a cripple?”
Ella, a world wheelchair-skating champion, doesn’t let her disability slow her down. And she understands why suicide is no less tragic for the disabled than it is for the able-bodied:
“I believe we are all made in [God’s] image and likeness,” she writes. “… if our value comes from God, then nobody has the right to say someone who walks is worth more than someone who doesn’t.”
Or, I would add, to say that lives with disabilities aren’t worth living.
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.