By Alex Schadenberg, International Chair – Euthanasia Prevention Coalition
Kevin Yuill, a history professor at Sunderland University, is an academic who has written extensively on assisted suicide based on his secular perspective. His book and articles are well written and worth reading.
Yuill wrote an excellent article that was published in the Telegraph Saturday.
Yuill’s argues that [the book and now the movie] “Me Before You” is simply one of many fictional stories about assisted suicide (”an outbreak”), but that on further reflection “the whole case for assisted suicide is fictional.”
There is an outbreak of fictional assisted suicides, of which the film released this week, “Me Before You,” is simply the most recent example. Before, we had “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Sea Inside,” “One True Thing,” and episodes of Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” “Coronation Street,” and “Hollyoaks.” Such a plot-device is neither new nor “taboo-busting” – that taboo has been well and truly busted.
It is interesting that the case for assisted suicide exists more in the fevered imagination of authors and screenwriters than in reality. Only a handful of Britons kill themselves in Swiss assisted suicide clinics every year; the rate of fictional representations to people actually killing themselves in Switzerland must be nearly 1:1. But “Me Before You” has sparked protests, mostly from disabled groups, because it implicitly asks the question: If you were quadriplegic (or severely disabled), would/should you kill yourself?
Of course, the film is fiction and not particularly imaginative fiction at that, but there is a real context to the unease of groups of disabled activists like Not Dead Yet who have protested outside cinemas.
Yuill outlines some of the information from his book: “Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization” (2015).
The whole case for assisted suicide is fictional. Rather than empathy, it is based on anxiety in the worried. “I’d rather die than suffer like you do”, some actually say out loud to disabled people, who, in my experience are a feisty lot who enjoy (and all too often must fight for) their lives. There are real disabled lives – and there is the narcissistic projection of gloomy imaginings onto the disabled.
The case for legalised assisted suicide has at its heart a fictional scene – a relative near the end of her life wracked with pain, betubed and hooked up to beeping machines, looks pleadingly to her anxious family who in turn look to the doctor, who shakes her head sadly, constrained by a law founded on outdated religious mores.
But the reality is (in this case the film does capture the truth) that those who do choose assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington, where it has been legal since 1997 and 2008 respectively, tend to be educated, middle class, determined, and used to getting their own way (as well as perfectly capable of doing it on their own. Why didn’t Will Traynor, the main character, wheel himself into a moat or off one of the many turrets of his castle?). Pain does not even come into the top five reasons why they opt for an assisted suicide in these states. Instead, it is fear – of loss of autonomy, loss of enjoyment of activities, loss of dignity, loss of bodily functions, and being a burden.
The closer to reality of death and dying, the less support there is for legalising assisted suicide. Whereas a majority of the British public believe they need the “right” to die, the percentages go down in accordance to experience of death and dying. Less than half of all doctors support legalised assisted suicide. Of hospice doctors, 90 per cent oppose legalisation of assisted suicide.
Of course, assisted suicide and the dramas it entails have the potential for excellent drama; Shakespeare included no less than 52 suicides in his plays. Nor should there be any censorship of such issues in print or on screen. But we should remember that it is only in fictional accounts like “Me Before You” that one can find any compelling reasons to change the law on assisted suicide. Reality is a little more complex.
Editor’s note. This appeared on the webpage of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.