Last week, while our heads were exploding over the presidential election, Colorado became the seventh state (California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, D.C., Colorado) to adopt a law allowing physician assisted suicide. The “dignity in death” movement slithers along unchecked.
For years we’ve also been consuming the movement’s narrative in popular culture, such as through movies like Million Dollar Baby. More recently, summer movie-goers laughed, cried, and shouted their frustration (me!) at the manipulative comedic drama Me Before You. An opposites-attract love story, Me Before You tells the tale of a wealthy playboy, Will (played by Sam Claflin), who is paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a motorcycle, and his quirky-cute care-giver Louisa (played by Emilia Clarke).
The romantic tension arises when Louisa discovers Will’s intention to pursue physician assisted suicide in Switzerland (it’s legal there). First repulsed by the idea, Louisa’s “love” for Will wins out, and she follows him to Switzerland so she can be with him before the deed is done. As a gesture of his “love,” he sets Louisa up with a bunch of cash so she can live “boldly.”
The movie incited outrage in the disabled community. Disability activist Dominick Evans said: “They only have a few moments of true romance. The first time she actually kisses him, he tells her to stop, because love is not enough. Death is better.” Others on social media protested the film with the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia.
And now comes Mary Kills People, which the cable network Lifetime bills as a dark comedy with a complex protagonist. Single mom and ER doctor Mary Harris (played by Hannibal star Caroline Dhavernas) helps save lives in the Emergency Room by day, then turns into doctor death at night by “helping” terminally ill patients “slip away on their own terms.”
Me Before You and Mary Kills People promote the popular secularist message of autonomy: each person is responsible to decide for himself or herself what is morally right. We possess a right to die with dignity, it’s a personal decision. But there is something inherently troubling about this view.
Why do we as a culture embrace this message, especially when it comes to such a grave moral issue? The lure of personal freedom, of course. But philosopher Roger Scruton suggests it is because we live in a society that no longer values life. This reality, according to Scruton, bears out in our cultural desecration of beauty. “Wherever beauty lies in wait for us,” writes Scruton, “there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction.”
Somehow, perhaps due to the existential alienation so many of us feel in this world, we have reduced the human body to a mere form. The pornification of our society, which I’ve written about before, is the direct result of the desecration of life Scruton suggests. The “why,” according to Scruton, stems from our view of human life: our bodies, mere objects among objects; our spirits, ineffectual; we see ourselves as “overcome by external forces, rather than as free subjects bound by the moral law.”
We live for self rather than others—what St. Augustine referred to as incurvatus in se (curved inward on one’s self). In our effort to find a spiritual home, we’ve embraced the despair of our circumstances, and physician assisted suicide (PAS) is yet another fruit of this turning. Film and television romanticize physician assisted suicide, couching it in slick funny narratives. But physician assisted suicide is anything but slick and funny.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sheri Fink recounts the gruesome aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center in which doctors and nurses made decisions to euthanize critically ill patients they thought would not survive the evacuation. One African-American man (who did not realize he was being euthanized) did not respond as expected to the morphine and midazolam, resulting in one doctor covering his face with a towel until he stopped breathing.
And yet some doctors, such as Haider Javed Warraich, continue to argue for physician assisted suicide. “We [doctors] need to be able to offer an option for those who desire assisted suicide, so that they can openly take control of their death.” It’s hard to escape the subtle autonomous sentiment in Warriach’s statement.
When it comes to autonomy on the issue of physician assisted suicide, some argue for a view of the good life in which we are the authors of the lives we produce. But as Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, who criticizes this view, notes, this should not be the only view of the good life. When laws change to support an autonomous view of the good life, they do so at the expense of those who view life not as autonomous, or self-created, but as a gift. The view of life as a gift positions we humans as guardians of that gift.
It is time, as a country, to reconsider our view of life. If the political atmosphere has shown us anything, it is that a culture curved in on itself produces what it desires: desecration and objectification. Creators of movies and television shows that promote euthanasia are more than happy to continue spreading their message to the world. It’s time for those who hold a different view of the good life—one that emphasizes life, not death—to start doing the same.