Oscars for the Culture of Death

A "Disability Vendetta" Surfaces in Hollywood

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HOLLYWOOD, California, MARCH 19, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The recent Academy Awards saw the triumph of two films that promote a favorable view of euthanasia. "Million Dollar Baby," a story about a female boxer severely wounded in a bout, won four of the top Oscars, including that of best director for Clint Eastwood. Hilary Swank won for best actress for her portrayal of Maggie Fitzgerald, who ends up prostrated with a spinal injury. Her pleas to be helped in seeking release from suffering by death are fulfilled.



The Oscar for best foreign film went to "The Sea Inside," which depicts the real-life case of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro, who ended up a quadriplegic after a diving accident. His requests to put an end to his life met were turned down after legal battles, but he committed suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced mixture.

The awards won by the films have focused attention on the situation of severely injured or handicapped people, with many protesting that the cinematic versions so popular in Hollywood are both dangerous and demeaning.

The British Telegraph newspaper reported Jan. 23 that the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, one of America's most respected organizations for disabled people, accused Eastwood of a "disability vendetta." The association described the concluding scene of "Million Dollar Baby" as a "brilliantly executed attack on life after a spinal cord injury." Protesters in Chicago from the organization Not Dead Yet claimed that the film "promotes the killing of disabled people as the solution to the 'problem' of disability."

Matthew Eppinette, from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, pointed out in a commentary published by the organization Feb. 28 that the film portrays humans as if they were mere animals to be put out of their suffering.

On the contrary, he stated, "Euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide are wrong because they deliberately end a human life -- a life that bears the image of God." Moreover, even being a quadriplegic does not prevent us from deepening our relationship with God.

People in this situation certainly suffer greatly, Eppinette pointed out. But, as the example of Christopher Reeve amply demonstrated, "even the most severely paralyzed can live a rich and vibrant life, given proper care and support."

Real-life testimonies

In fact, many people in this situation have published testimonies affirming their will to live. Daniel Timmons, writing in Canada's National Post last Oct. 8, described how he has lost much of the use of his hands and legs. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. "Every day is not only a difficult physical struggle, but also a torturous psychological one," he explained.

"From my own experience, it's a challenge to see the purpose of living when your body declines so rapidly and fear fills your mind," stated Timmons. Nevertheless, he opposes assisted suicide, noting that it would be more accurate to call it assisted killing.

Our dignity does not depend on existing without pain, he added. "If people's suffering prevents them from seeing the value of living, they deserve our pity. But no one should deliberately act to kill them."

The case of another ALS sufferer, Jules Lodish, was described in the New York Times last Nov. 7. Reporters visited his Bethesda, Maryland, home when he had already lived for 10 years with the disease. By now almost every muscle in Lodish's body is paralyzed and he types into a computer by twitching the muscles of his cheek.

Asked how he feels about his life, Lodish responded: "I still look forward to every day."

Linda Ganzini, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, told the New York Times that many patients have deep religious beliefs that help sustain them, and they are able "to find hope in the future, find meaning and tolerate the daily ongoing losses that they are experiencing."

Living flawed lives

From London, Jane Campbell, a commissioner for the Disability Rights Commission, spoke of her experience suffering from spinal muscular atrophy. Writing in the Times on Dec. 2, she explained what happened when in January 2004 she was admitted to hospital with severe pneumonia.

The consultant who was treating her commented that if she were to go into respiratory failure "he assumed that I would not want to be resuscitated on a ventilator." She replied: "Of course I would want to be ventilated." The same scenario was repeated the following day with another consultant, and Campbell feared for her life. Scared that the doctors would let her die, she refused to sleep for the next 48 hours.

"This incident, and similar ones that come to the attention of the Disability Rights Commission, reflect society's view that people such as myself live flawed and unsustainable lives and that death is preferable to living with a severe impairment," she explained in the article.

She also noted that the concept of terminal illness is not easy to define. More than a quarter of the doctors who authorize assisted deaths in Oregon said that they were not confident they could give an accurate six-month prognosis.

Another recent testimony came from Spain, where a champion of the Athens Para-Olympics, José Javier Curto, described to the newspaper La Razón that after 11 years of living in a wheelchair, due to a muscular disease, he is firmly opposed to euthanasia.

Our lives belong to God, he said, with or without suffering. Moreover, he affirmed that the case of Ramón Sampedro was not typical. In fact, he calculated that the great majority of paralyzed want to keep on living and are opposed to euthanasia.

Another case from England is that of Baroness Chapman of Leeds, reported in the Telegraph on Feb. 6. Baroness Chapman sits in the House of Lords, where the British government's Mental Capacity Bill at the time of writing was being debated. The bill, it is argued, would open the doors to euthanasia.

The baroness was born with brittle bone disease. At her birth, the doctors maintained she would be unable to communicate and would have no noticeable mental function. She took her seat in the Lords last October, and in her maiden speech condemned the Mental Capacity Bill, saying, "If this bill had been passed 43 years ago, I would not be here."

After a few months of her birth in 1961 she said the doctors sent her home, saying there was nothing more they could do for her. "They sent me home to die," she said, "and I'm still waiting."

Born with 50 bone fractures, she has suffered 600 fractures in all, and at only 2 feet 9 inches tall she has had to overcome serious obstacles. Yet, "I think that in any situation a person should be given every chance to survive," she argued.

True compassion

In a speech Nov. 12, John Paul II outlined the ethical principles that should guide medical treatment. "Medicine is always at the service of life," he told participants in the International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.

And when treatment cannot overcome a serious disease, then efforts should be directed to the alleviation of suffering. In every case it is important to remember "the inalienable dignity of every human being, even in the extreme conditions of terminal illness," the Pope said.

Euthanasia can be motivated by sentiments of compassion, or by a false idea of preserving dignity. But instead of relieving suffering it just eliminates the person, the Holy Father pointed out. A lesson Hollywood needs to learn.