- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

“For the last seven years, I have not been able to eat, wash, go to the bathroom or get dressed by myself,” said Christopher Reeve in dramatic testimony before the Senate in 2002. “Some people are able to accept living with a severe disability. I am not one of them…”

Stop after that ellipsis, and you might read a validation of the pro-euthanasia ethos embodied — perhaps even espoused — in two critically acclaimed films both nominated for Academy Awards on Tuesday.

But Mr. Reeve didn’t intend that statement as a justification for suicide, although he candidly admitted to contemplating ending his life after the May 1995 horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

He meant it as a spur to advocacy for more medical research, controversially including embryonic stem cell research, into repairing spinal cord injuries.

Mr. Reeve, who died last October, vowed gamely that he would walk again. Shortly after the accident — after beating back thoughts of suicide — he said, “There’ll be a lot of nice years ahead. The only limits you have are those you put on yourself.”

There were nine years ahead. Nine years of dogged usefulness.

Mr. Reeve’s against-the-odds spirit is decidedly absent in a pair of movies that coincidentally deal with spinal cord injuries. (Spoiler alert: Plot revelations ahead.) The Hollywood that was so moved by Mr. Reeve’s will to live just months ago is now strangely inspired by screen characters determined to die.

(One more time, Oscar-watcher with movies to catch up on: There’s a plot-revealing iceberg right ahead.)

In Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” nominated for seven Oscars, a female boxer played by Hilary Swank (nominated for best actress) ends up a quadriplegic.

Robbed of the power to move, and seemingly satisfied that she has proved her worth in life, Miss Swank’s character begs her trainer (Mr. Eastwood) to cut off her life support, which he does.

Reviewing critics, including yours truly, have written around this plot point to preserve the surprise for viewers. Others haven’t been so delicate and have spoken against the movie.

Conservative columnist Debbie Schlussel assailed the film for snookering viewers into thinking they’re watching an uplifting sports melodrama, only to thwack them over the head with a “nefarious message”: that mercy killing is OK, even noble. She called the movie a “million dollar lie.”

The Bethesda-based National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s Marcia Roth has speculated that Mr. Eastwood has a “disability vendetta” and characterized the film’s climax as a “brilliantly executed attack on life after a spinal cord injury.”

Steven Drake of Not Dead Yet, an Illinois-based organization that fights assisted suicide laws, wrote in the online magazine Ragged Edge that the movie “plays out killing as a romantic fantasy and gives emotional life to the ‘better dead than disabled’ mindset.”

Mr. Drake also called it “corny” — a saving grace, perhaps.

“Million Dollar Baby” is more than a sociopolitical broadside; it’s a fairly complex character study. Mr. Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn attends Mass daily and is told by his priest that he’ll spend eternity in perdition if he goes through with the coup de grace.

The Telegraph of London noted that a Catholic News Service reviewer, David DiCerto, was ambivalent about the movie. “The film is not a polemic in favor of assisted suicide. Given the dire circumstances, our sympathies and humane inclinations may argue in favor of such misguided compassion,” Mr. DiCerto reasoned.

And Mr. Eastwood himself — who was already in hot water with disability advocates forcongressional testimony in 2000 criticizing the American with Disabilities Act’s effect on small businesses — has said: “How people feel about that is up to them. I’m not a pro-euthanasia person, and this is a story about a giant dilemma and how one person had to face that.”

“Million Dollar Baby” is conflicted about its morality. The Spanish movie “The Sea Inside,” nominated for best foreign-language picture, tells the real-life story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic, and his legal crusade for the right to die.

“The Sea Inside” is not conflicted about its morality.

Perhaps because of its provenance, “The Sea” hasn’t sparked the hullabaloo here that “Baby” has. Catholic Spain is another matter. The Church there has condemned the movie. In turn, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero opined before the Spanish Parliament that “the film, paradoxically, is a hymn to life. The defense of the freedom to die is, itself, a hymn to life.”

Paradoxical, for sure.

Ragged Edge editor Mary Johnson thinks movies like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Sea Inside” rear their heads periodically because of a lack of dialogue about severe disability. “These movies, more than anything, emerge out of that lack of understanding,” she has written. “Movies like these will continue to be made until people are given a way to understand that it is all right to live as a disabled person. Not heroic, not tragic — simply all right.”

Actually, we do have heroes. The hundreds of veterans struggling to rehabilitate their bodies at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, for one. The late Christopher Reeve, for another.

Has Hollywood forgotten already?

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