LivesWorthLiving Australia really is drawing together the best in commentary opposed to euthanasia from a disability perspective.
This article is by Joan Hume OAM:
|Joan Hume OAM|
It is 10 years since Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” won four Oscars: best picture, best actress (Hilary Swank), best supporting actor (Morgan Freeman) and best director. At the time, prominent film critics heaped praise, even adoration, on the film and its director, Eastwood: the late Roger Ebert, for example, described it as “the best film of 2004…a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true”. The ABC’s “At the Movies” presenter, David Stratton, in rating it 5 out of 5 stars, extolled it as “one of the great American movies”.
Acclaim for the film, however, was not universal. Its strongest denunciation came largely from the disability community in the US who picketed the Chicago Film Critics Association’s award ceremony and waged a fiery press, on-line and television campaign against the film’s underlying message. The film’s supporters, not wanting to “spoil” its emotional impact by revealing the surprise ending, largely refused to mention, let alone discuss, the controversial social issue hidden towards the end. What was it about “Million Dollar Baby” that many disability advocates found so offensive?
The story concerns a young woman Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) from a poor redneck family who yearns to become a champion boxer and her deepening relationship with Frankie (Clint Eastwood), an ageing trainer and manager of hopeful boxers. At first Frankie refuses to train her but gradually comes to admire Maggie’s persistence, talent and courage. Eventually Frankie adopts her as a protégé and surrogate daughter and her career takes off. When Maggie finally reaches the championship she is felled by a cowardly blow and breaks her neck as she falls. Now a quadriplegic, her career over, she is stuck in a nursing home, in a “frozen” body riddled with such devastating pressure sores her leg needs to be amputated.
These catastrophes cascade in rapid succession without any family support except from her boxing friends and so engulf her in deep despair. She begs Frankie (who just happens to be a devout Catholic) to kill her. In an act of “pure” love, thereby sacrificing his own soul, Frankie creeps into the nursing home at night, turns off her respirator and injects her with adrenalin.
In immediate response to the film, Marcie Roth, executive director of the US National Spinal Cord Injury Association stated “(a)ny movie that sends a message that having a spinal cord injury is a fate worse than death is a movie that concerns us tremendously”. The association’s press release further described it as “a brilliantly executed attack on people with spinal cord injury.”
Stephen Drake from “Not Dead Yet”, a disability-focused anti-euthanasia lobby group didn’t mince words: “This movie is a corny melodramatic assault on people with disabilities. It plays out killing as a romantic fantasy and gives emotional life to the “better dead than disabled” mindset lurking in the heart of the typical (read non-disabled) audience member.”
Clint Eastwood denied that the film was about the right to die. In an interview with the New York Times (31st January 2005) he said “The film is supposed to make you think about the precariousness of life and how we handle it. How the character handles it is certainly different than how I might handle it if I were in that position in real life. Every story is a ‘what if’”.
Many disability protestors saw Eastwood’s justification of the film’s “message” as disingenuous to say the least, even calling the film his “act of revenge” and “crip snuff” given that he has real form when it comes to undermining the rights of people with disabilities. In a notorious case in which wheelchair user Diane zum Brunnen who has muscular dystrophy sued Eastwood for access violations at his Carmel ranch, the actor/director fought to weaken the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by taking his crusade to Congress. He claimed that businessmen like himself were being targeted by unscrupulous lawyers who exploited disabled litigants to extract vast amounts of compensation money for minor breaches of the law.
Giving testimony before a congressional committee in May 2000 Eastwood urged legislators to modify the ADA requiring plaintiffs to give 90 days’ notice to business owners of pending complaints thereby allowing time to rectify access problems before filling suit. In spite of Eastwood’s best efforts the ADA Notification amendment Bill 14 years later seems to have been stalled.
Several films including “The Sea Inside”, “Whose Life is it Anyway?” and most recently ”Amour”have all dealt with the issue of euthanasia and disability. Stephen Drake contends that these are stories about disability that society wants to believe are true rather than reflecting the actual reality of how people live their lives and the choices they make. The exaggerations and inaccuracies depicted in Eastwood’s version of Maggie’s quadriplegia are worth public discussion and debate. And correction. There was no need for Frankie to bump her off in such a dramatic fashion. She had the right to request to turn off her respirator. She merely had to request it. But that’s another story.
Joan Hume OAM is a member of Lives Worth Living and a Founding, Life Member and former director of People with Disability Australia.