Wednesday, March 2, 2005

"Better Off Dead" or "Not Dead Yet?" - Terry Schiavo & Million Dollar Baby

The ongoing legal battle over Terri Schindler-Schiavo between a family who wants to care for her and a husband who wants to move on. The case of Million Dollar Baby, upon which Hollywood bestowed its greatest honor this week for its "honest" depiction of a mercy-killing as a desparate solution to the heroine's suffering.

I've been thinking about the confluence of these two issues in the news over the past several weeks and the underlying themes that they share: the fear of suffering and disability that pervades our culture that compels some to seek "an easy way out", a quick painless end -- "better off dead" rather than a burden to self and others.

In Killing Terri Schiavo, (Crisis Magazine January 4, 2004), Rev. Robert Johansen examines "the euthanasia connection" in great detail. It is no coincidence that Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, is a member of the Hemlock Society (presently known as the warm, fuzzy and politically-correct Compassion & Choices"), or that Felos' book Litigation as Spiritual Practice describes him as "spearheading a social revolution to enable death with dignity in the state of Florida."

Neither is it a coincidence that Michael Schiavo's leading medical witness in the case, Dr. Ronald Cranford, "was the leading medical voice calling for the deaths of Paul Brophy, Nancy Jobes, Nancy Cruzan, and Christine Busalucci, all of whom were brain-damaged but not dying."

You can read more about Felos and Cranford in Tony Collins' substantial article "Dealers of Death" (Envoy Magazine January 2004), in which she exames the Right-to-Die movement's exploitation of Terri Schiavo to advance their political agenda. How often do we hear pundits murmur in sympathetic tones that the plight of Terri Schiavo could have been avoided if only she had "A Living Will"?

Whereas right-to-die advocates see Terri Schiavo as a lesson in opportunities lost, disability rights advocates express concern that Million Dollar Baby will bolster the public case for physician-assisted suicide. In Seeing Million Dollar Baby From My Wheelchair, Diane Coleman, J.D., president of disability-rights organization Not Dead Yet, describes her experience watching the film and being a part of the audience:

I've always felt a tension between how others see me and how I see myself. By now, that tension, and my coping mechanisms, are way below the surface. Denial, the fantasy of acceptance, I have used whatever I could to endure and manage over 50 years of those looks, and looks away, to be who I am out in the world everyday.

But now I am forced to see how critics and audiences love this movie, resent our anger, and extol the virtues of open public discussion of euthanasia based on disability. My fantasy is ripped away.

If I'd been truly prepared, I'd have brought a sign to hold up, saying, "I Am Not Better Off Dead." I would have looked into every face exiting the theater, insisting that they see me, and this simple yet apparently incomprehensible message.

Not Dead Yet joins other organizations such as the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, in its opposition to the film. According to CNN:

Marcie Roth, executive director of the NSCA, said her group has been working to improve conditions for the disabled since 1948, "yet lo these many years later, many people still think having a spinal-cord injury is a fate worse than death.

"Unfortunately, a message like the one in 'Million Dollar Baby' just perpetuates exactly what we work so hard to dispel."

(Source: The backlash over 'Million Dollar Baby' CNN. Feb. 7, 2005.)

Related Links:

  • Emotional Punch, Jay Cridlin. St. Petersburg Times February 27, 2005. Another journalist looks at the comparisons between the film and real-life happenings in Florida.
  • "The Oscars, Suicide Movies, Clint Eastwood & the ADA", by disability-rights publication The Ragged Edge.
  • "Dangerous Times", a review of Million Dollar Baby by Steve Drake, Research Analyst for Not Dead Yet. Ragged Edge January 11, 2005.
  • BlogsForTerri, a list of sites that are committed to supporting and defending the life of Terri Schiavo through their blogging activities.

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