Monday, May 16, 2005

Million Dollar Baby (Ethics Part 3)

I had promised back in March to give a third part to my discussion of ethics, see here and here, but I never got around to it, partly because everyone knows how the Terri Schiavo saga ended. (although I still haven't heard anything about her autopsy results).

So today I saw the movie "Million Dollar Baby" with Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood, and Morgan Freeman. I saw it because I knew it dealt with the ethical dilemma of euthanasia. It's certainly not the first movie ever made with a blatant agenda behind it. Perhaps not even the first to have the agenda of euthanasia (I can't think of other's off-hand). But what I began to realize after seeing it, was that movies like this are training us. Now what disturbs me about this is not that someone is making a movie to push an agenda. But I see it as an illustration of what is happening in our modern America. There is a growing sympathy toward euthanasia, which at some point in the not too distant past was recognized for what it truly is: murder. But at some point in the not too distant past we started to feel sympathy. Maybe Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Dr. Death) was one of the earlier and more publicized examples of euthanasia, where it started to become more obvious that at least some people were having sympathy for what he was doing. Even calling it 'mercy killing.' But however this came upon us, it's not at all far from becoming a full-fledged, legal reality. In fact it could be argued that this is already happening with the likes of the Schiavo case.

But can you see how it's happening? Go watch the movie if you haven't, and notice how your emotions are pulled to create a kind of sympathy (I'm certainly not suggesting that we shouldn't feel sympathy for people in such cases, far from it), a kind of sympathy that will overrule your conscience's knowledge of what is right and what is ethical. It's training you to think that euthanasia really isn't bad. And what's frightening is not that this is happening in a movie theater (I thought the movie was otherwise well-made and interesting), but this happened in real life with the Schiavo case. They aren't comparable in medical terms (Swank was conscious and in her full mental faculties, but had total, permanent paralysis and was on a ventilator), but in both cases they were euthanized. And you can see how those who moved for Schiavo's death portrayed it as the compassionate thing to do. I think both the movie and this Schiavo case show how we have been trained to think that life is only valuable if we consider it to be of a certain 'quality of life.' Or perhaps if someone's life has 'meaning.' Or maybe people are just biological machines made up of so many parts, and once you remove an arm or a leg, or maybe once some of the parts stop working, that 'machine' no longer qualifies as a life. It is entirely understandable that a person stuck in a situation like Swank's in the movie, would lose the will to live. But does that then give them the 'right to die'? Does a person even have to be in that condition to have that 'right to die', so long as they have lost their will to live? Does it reflect on what we have been taught (or trained) to believe regarding the value of life, that we think its just as kind to euthanize a person who's not dying, as it is to put an old dog to sleep?

It seems I've heard somewhere recently that a person said Americans have rendered themselves incapable of suffering. I can imagine (with horror) a future that now seems to be not all that distant, where "euthanasia clinics" are as common as abortion clinics. Imagine how sanitized death could become--a casual building much like a hospital, but with soft, sentimental music playing; an artificial brook babbles through the lobby offering the soothing sound of trickling water; cheerful nurses lead 'patients' to their 'farewell chamber' where they are peacefully injected with drugs that will kill them in a matter of minutes, without pain. Maybe they'd call the clinic "Peaceful Transistions", or "Tranquil Gardens", or something equally saccharine. After all, who wouldn't rather die like that than suffer in a hospital bed for weeks on end? Who wouldn't rather die like that than live paralyzed or brain-damaged? Do you see how 'sympathy' and 'compassion' can become so distorted? If we are to stop this scenario from happening, we cannot tolerate this kind of talk about 'mercy-killing' or 'quality of life' to go by unnoticed. We must take a stand that all life is inherently valued, not because we give it value, but because God gives it value. Now this is not to make life into the ultimate good, as if we were to deny death (see previous posts on ethics), but it is to acknowledge that we are not given the right to take life away from ourselves or someone else because we or they have lost the will to live, or because we or they feel that we no longer have sufficient 'quality of life.'


Stuart Floyd said...

Hi Josh,

Interesting article. Have you seen the position of the LCMS with regards to suicide recently?

The LCMS is poised and ready to offer "spiritual" care to those who are ready to end it all this terrible suffering to the soothing sounds of Bach. Apparently nobody reads 1 Peter anymore, Galatians, etc. which talk about suffering as a part of the Christian life.


Jester of Alba said...

"It is understandable that a person... stuck in this situation, would lose the will to live. But does it then give them the 'right to die'"
These words and what you are defending with them are both shocking and disturbing. All the more so because you are right. More and more I see that people intentionally blind their eyes and stop their ears to not have to face the truth and therefore permit themselves to do whatever they want. This applies to all forms of sin, but became abundantly evident in the Schiavo case and the plotline you cited. It is easier for man to decree a life unworth living then face the fact that a person, like them, is being killed.
Your "euthanasia clinics" are horrible yet sadly viable. Worse I can see, as prompted by the Schiavo case, families legally taking their beloved, yet burdensome elderly parents and grandparents (despite their wishes) to this clinics rather then having to foot the bill for an Elder/Assisted Care Home (let alone take them in and care for elderly themselves). By merely catagorizing them as having lived a full life, beyond any "reasonable quality of life" and an unreasonable financial burden.

Josh Schneider said...

Stuart, I totally agree about suffering being a part of the Christian life. But like typical theologians of glory, it seems that the message of Today is that all suffering is evil and to be avoided. I checked out the LCMS link about suicide, and am not sure I get your drift. The Q & A seemed pretty normal to me. Please elaborate.

you really hit on it here: "It is easier for man to decree a life unworth living then face the fact that a person, like them, is being killed." That's really what its all about. In order to soothe our consciences and hide the fact that what we are actually doing is KILLING someone, we first have to 'decree their life unworth living.' Then, its not murder, its compassion! So you see how its distorted. Thanks for that thought. It really encapsulates what I was getting at.

Josh Schneider said...

More than 3 years after writing this, I find out that the idea of "euthanasia clinics" in the future was already depicted in the movie "Soylent Green" made back in the 70's. I guess its sort of an environmental protest/ sci-fi drama (not really worth seeing), but they had just what I described in the movie. Elderly people were lining up with their crutches and walkers, etc to be filed into their personal chamber. They lay down on a bed in a pleasant room with a big video screen which projected beautiful, soothing images of nature. All the while they listened to their choice of favorite music, basked in muted light of their favorite color, while slipping off in a painless death from drinking a poisoned cocktail. The attendants, eerily enough, wore what looked very much like vestments a pastor might wear in church--a white robe with something like a stole or sash. After the people died, their bed was moved on a tram out to a loading area, where all the bodies were dumped into big garbage trucks. Of course the sci-fi sinister conspiracy begins to unravel at that point, as Charleton Heston discovers that the bodies that are disposed of are recycled into processed food biscuits called Soylent Green. And in the futuristic, barren, overpopulated world, soylent is the main food source. "Soylent Green is people!!" is Heston's climactic line ;)

Of course that is far-fetched and a little wacky, but I couldn't help but think of how the whole Mad Cow disease thing got started. As I understand it, the cows had their diet supplemented with "rendered" cattle meat and bone. In other words, cattle were being forced to cannibalize. I don't know if they figured out if that was what caused it, or just how it spread. But anyhow, there's obviously something wrong with eating your own kind, cow or human. Gross.