Review by Rev Jane Fraser
“Richard is my boyfriend”. Shown on Channel 4 TV on 7.8.2007 at 11.05 p.m.
Written by Zinnie Harris. Produced & directed by Ian Duncan and Oliver Morse.
This is a film about two young lovers, Anna and her boyfriend Richard, and their developing sexual relationship. The fact that they are not yet married is not seen as an issue. The key theme, however, is Anna’s capacity to give informed consent to sexual intercourse. Although Anna is 24, she is deemed to have a mental age of five. Richard also has a learning disability but is more able than Anna and helps in a local tea shop.
The story line is one that is familiar to those of us who, like me, have worked with and for young people with disabilities in a professional capacity with the aim of enabling them to develop relationships that bring them acceptance, love and pleasure1. Anna and Richard are clearly in love and take every opportunity to sneak off together for time alone with a kiss and a cuddle. Richard comes round to Anna’s house one evening when, just for once, Anna’s mother, Michelle, has left the sleeping Anna alone in bed so she can share a birthday drink with her friends. Anna wakes up and lets Richard in – not just to the house, but also to her bed, with the result that, some weeks later, it becomes evident that she is pregnant. In her desperation to avoid the possibility of becoming responsible for Anna’s baby as well as for Anna, Michelle obtains an abortion inducing pill via the web and persuades Anna to take it to ‘make her stomach upset better’. She also tricks her ex- husband, Steve, into paying for this via his credit card. Needless to say, when the statement comes through and he realises what he has unwittingly purchased, his views on the abortion and Anna’s relationship with Richard, are totally at variance with Michelle’s. From this point onwards, various professionals become involved in deciding Anna’s fate. Either she is to be sterilized so she can continue her relationship with Richard without fear of a further, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, or she has to be kept at home and supervised at all times in order to prevent her meeting Richard again Although this film that was made for TV has no reference to religious belief, the ethical dilemmas acted out within the story-line are, none the less, ones that continue to tax the major faiths and, in particular, the Christian denominations. Free will and self-determination are examined within the context of a young woman with a learning disability’s capacity to give informed consent. The use and abuse of power is seen within the context of decisions made for Anna by her parents and the various professionals who make decisions that have a profound effect on the quality of her life and relationships. The issue of respect for the value we place on every life (or lack of it) is also seen throughout the film and even in the timing of its transmission (when most good folks have gone to bed).
I was also reminded of the importance of accurate, experience-based information in making decisions and how the use of distorted or incorrect information has such potential for harm in our lives and the lives of those to whom we relate. The reason Anna became pregnant despite their use of a condom was because Richard had been given insufficient information about how to use it. His teacher had demonstrated how to use a condom by rolling it onto a banana and failed to see that Richard did not have the capacity to transfer information from one context to another. The gynaecologist gave insufficient information on alternative methods of administering hormonal contraception other than the oral contraceptive, a method which would have required Michelle’s agreement and co-operation which was not forthcoming. The official solicitor, appointed to assess Anna’s ability to form a consenting relationship with Richard, failed to get any verbal response from Anna about her feelings whilst her mother was present. She also failed to see Anna with Richard, unlike the psychiatrist who observed Anna relating joyfully to Richard in a way that enhanced the capacity for friendship and mutuality in both, and demonstrated their love for each other in a way that words could not.Increasingly, professionals are coming to an understanding of consent as a concept that is not simply conveyed intellectually and verbally but also (and sometimes alternatively) demonstrated through our actions and body language. When someone’s language and intellectual skills are limited, we have to place greater emphasis on observation of the emotional and physical responses to a situation or relationship in order to assess their consent. It is, in my opinion, a mark of lack of respect for someone with a disability, when we fail to take this into consideration. One of the most profoundly disturbing images in this film was the extreme distress and overall deterioration in Anna at the end of the film when she was permanently deprived of her relationship with Richard
If we believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God and that we are made to relate to him in love, as he relates to us in love, then this film should be deeply challenging to us. Jesus placed a child before his disciples2 and told them that ‘unless you … become like one of these, you will not enter into the kingdom of Heaven’3. He took the least powerful person in society – one with no social, economic, political or intellectual standing and confirmed their priority in the eyes of God over those who use and even abuse their social, economic, political or intellectual standing. As for those who abuse their vulnerability, some of his most outspoken warnings are directed towards them.
The Revd. Canon Jane Fraser August 2007
(Jane is a Minister in Secular Employment working as a trainer and consultant on sexuality issues)
- See Bodysense website at www.bodysense.org.uk
- Matthew 18:2
- Matthew 18:3
- Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2