Hollywood and the Struggle for Dignity in Death

The Academy Awards for best picture and best foreign picture went to films about assisted suicide.

During Oscar week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on this issue. The Bush administration is challenging the Oregon Death with Dignity law permitting doctors to assist the terminally ill in ending their lives quickly and painlessly. The case gains added drama because Chief Justice William Rehnquist is battling thyroid cancer.

Assisted suicide was a gay issue during the grim 1980s when people with AIDS were dying of painful and ghastly complications. The issue directly affects the seriously ill and the elderly. Soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan may also taken the issue to heart.

Like reproductive freedom, it is a sister issue to gay rights in the sense that it implicates the individual’s right to control their bodies, their medical treatment and their lives. Many of the groups that oppose individual choice are lined up again assisted suicide, and their legal arguments are derived from laws passed to fight illegal drugs.

The opposition to assisted suicide is increasingly led by the right to life movement which casts the issue as one of protecting the disabled, just as they reduce the issue of abortion to a case of protecting the unborn. The right is promoting the fear that heartless people want to kill the disabled. In fact, groups like Compassion and Daring in Dying seek “peaceful and humane choices at the end of life.” They are trying to increase people’s choice as advances in medical science keep people alive even with serious illnesses.

Drug prohibition laws are being used to challenge the Oregon law approved twice by the voters there. After the measure’s first adoption in Oregon in 1994, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration developed the position that using barbiturates for suicide was prohibited by the Controlled Substance Act, and it threatened to prosecute doctors. Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general later overruled the DEA. When John Ashcroft became attorney general under George W. Bush, he reversed course, opining that the DEA could use the Controlled Substance Act to supercede Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. Oregon sued and lower federal courts reinstated the law and enjoined the federal government from prosecuting Oregon doctors. The regulation of medical practice is a state function, the courts ruled, and the Controlled Substance Act doesn’t apply to these situations.

The law is in effect and 171 people have used it since 1998. The appeal to the Supreme Court is being brought by the Bush administration.

Hollywood has often managed to mirror the political dramas of the day. In the 1970s, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies popularized the catch phrase, “go ahead make my day.” Although often preposterous, the storylines in those films gave credence to the complaints that first emerged in the George Wallace 1968 presidential campaign and in the Nixon administration that the liberal Supreme Court had “handcuffed” the police with hyper-technical rules concerning searches carried out against criminals and claims of brutality.

Last year, political films, though notably ignored on Oscar night, were the big news out of Hollywood. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” thrilled the anti-Bush public and broke all box office records for a movie documentary. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” also was racked up big ticket sales, among a distinctly different audience, but generated considerable anxiety because his version of Jesus’ last days was evocative of historical interpretations sometimes associated with anti-Semitic diatribes and even pogroms. Like Moore’s lefty agit-prop, Gibson’s film was greeted coolly by Academy members.

Hollywood clearly does not easily warm up to politics in their films—as opposed perhaps to their cocktail parties—but clearly the issue of dying with dignity was one that touched the movie-making community.

The prize-winning movies made vivid the most important aspect of “assisted suicide”—that it is about individual choice. “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t a propaganda film. It doesn’t make the case that this is a good choice, but rather that for Maggie Fitzgerald, the character played by Hillary Swank, it is a sensible decision. The Spanish Film, “The Sea Within,” makes a similar case, also interestingly about an injured athlete. The movie follows a best-selling book of the same title. A hit film, it edged out Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” for top film honors in Spain.

It is the story of Ramon Sampedro, an athletic and healthy man who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. He spent three decades in Catholic Spain trying to win the right to die. While “Million Dollar Baby” touches on many familiar themes about boxing helping the down and out achieve fame and fortune, “The Sea Within” makes the quandary surrounding an assisted suicide comprehensible by clearly showing how technological advances have enhanced the control quadriplegics have over their environment. Nonetheless Javier Bardem, one of Spain leading actors, leaves us transfixed in portraying the burdens Sampedro faces in his immobility, which outweigh the comforts by provided by his friends and family. In the final analysis, he is imprisoned.

The film is a great feat of empathy and masterful acting that I recommend without reservation.

Assisted suicide is one of the core issues in the culture wars revolving around individuals’ right to control their private lives. Whether it is the right to use condoms, the right to a sex life of our choice, access to marriage equality, the control over reproductive decisions or the ability to make decisions about dying, the issues are related. Gay rights is a struggle to help our community, but it is also tied to a broader struggle for human rights that will define this century. We are on the right side of history.