Film and Fiction to the Test of Bioethics

Film and Fiction to the Test of Bioethics

In the new millennium, film and television fiction have seen an increased interest in bioethical issues. This phenomenon, as seen in the production of many film and TV series, is due to the fact that bioethics is an excellent argument on screen. Bioethics offers the dramatic material and the veiled mystery of genetics.

It brings a patient’s life and death choices within the medical and health arena to the screen. Bioethics allows fictional media platforms to display patients’ freedom when facing exponentially increasing possibilities for intervention, along with questions about their legitimacy and implications.

Two questions then are worth asking: Which can be the contribution of cinema and serial television to the bioethical discourse? In what way is this contribution devoted to crucial topics, such as the beginning and end of life?

Answering the first question would mean bringing to light the screen’s potential for story-telling, and the risks inherent. Let’s start with the potential.

Potential for story-telling

The prerogative of a movie or any television fiction is to bring the audience inside a problem through the eyes, emotions, relationships, impulses, and the limitations of their characters. This means that a broad and concretely human vision should be provided. In other words, you would need to mirror the situation of finding oneself in a bind and figuring out the best possible solution, taking into consideration the serious long-term consequences that could result. The emotions play a vital role in accomplishing this simulation experience. No choice, and even less those related to bioethics, occurs through dry calculation, pure rationality. Emotions are reactions that reveal values to reason, thereby directing it towards that which is important. Now, the capacity to reproduce the “revealing” functions of the emotions is precisely what characterizes a story. This is the case with literature, but even more so with audiovisual narratives. A staple of contemporary screenwriting technique is the idea that the strongest, most engaging part of a story, is the process of the main character’s value development. While tested, he/she discovers the different values at play, finally trying to choose the most important ones, at any cost. In summary, film and fiction could be said to have in their power the potential to offer the viewer a land where, together with the character, moral dilemmas are brought to light and the struggle to discover the right path is embraced.

After having considered the potential, let’s now consider the risk.

The risk

The risk lies in the fact that audience involvement of TV narratives is never an automatic result taken for granted by the writers. It is rather the fruit of strenuous writing work by selecting which things to say, highlight, or omit. This work of character building is designed to generate the empathy of viewers. The character’s efforts to change must be justified, and that final transformation must be sealed in a profound and surprising way. This must be done in a way to allow the theme -the moral truth expressed in the story- to resound with freshness in the mind of the viewer.

All this is not in itself a problem. It’s actually inevitable, and even necessary, that a story uses a suitable “rhetorical narrative” to create that harmony without which the viewer wouldn’t be able to follow the action attentively, fully engaged, investing his reason and emotions. The risk springs from the fact that the rhetorical narrative can be used to bring to light true values but also the opposite ones. It could falsify real priorities or exalt only some sides of the problem, offering only partial solutions.

Life and death issues

Now for the second question: in what way has film and television “built” characters and stories that delve into life/death issues?

On one hand, the best films and shows progressively seem to acknowledge that life is an objective and inviolable value. This is the case, for example, in science-fiction films. From milestones such as Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997), a constant criticism of the scientific manipulation of man can be observed throughout the entire genre. The futuristic setting serves as a platform for showing how inequalities of power put some people in the position of deciding the suitability of other people’s lives. The question of touching the biological essence of man to the point of carrying out genetic modifications is of course quite modern and diffused today (these issues are also dealt with in films different from science fiction, take for example, My Sister’s Keeper (2009): Think of the practices of artificial insemination, which involve the destruction of embryos or the selection of a healthy child at the expense of a sick one…) In the genetic technocracy, from the oppression of an anonymous and authoritarian system, the imaginary Sci-Fi world sees the fruits of a progress that contradicts itself.

Furthermore, science fiction inscribes this criticism into a broader and more suggestive reflection on the idea of limit. A limit that is overcome by technology faces other limits that are more devious and stifling. We see this in Gattaca, when the genetically “invalid” character’s longing to fulfill his dreams is inhibited, he then uses with faith the opportunities hidden in the unpredictable and uncontrollable. Also in Blade Runner, the limit on life span frustrates, but does not eliminate, the replicants’ desire for the infinite, and in essence, for transcendence.

Regarding the beginning of life, if we shift from science fiction and genetics to the question on abortion, we find films like Juno (2007), and series such as Scrubs (2001)and Dr. House (2004) that offer pro-life insights.

As the teen mother Juno reveals, without euphemisms –as innate to her character- that which she carries in her womb “has fingernails”: it’s a baby. This is particularly indicative if we consider that the screenwriter and the main professionals involved in the film production do not consider themselves as “pro-life”. Nevertheless, watching the situation from a narrative perspective has made reality to affirm itself.

The same perspective seems to slowly emerge within American series, which are traditionally far from defending unborn life. For example, the shocking image of a fetus’ little hand that stretches out to grasp the doctor’s hand during the operation on the mother is a focal point of a famous episode of Dr. House (Fetal Position, 2007). That scene, inspired by a true incident and a photograph to prove it, greatly impacted the American public opinion.

Now if we consider the slope of the end of life, film and fiction offer a different panorama, where the value of life is subordinate to the value of the autonomy of choice. If delicate films, such as The Savages (2007), speak of sickness as a doorway to coming to one’s senses and the rediscovery of affections in the midst of suffering, Million Dollar Baby (2004) and other similar films dealing with the euthanasia question push a contrary thesis. From Eastwood’s film about the quadriplegic boxer who wants to die, certain “pro-choice” solutions emerge. Among these, there are probably two with greatest leverage, which are closely linked to one another.

First of all, possible alternative reactions to the illness are overshadowed, which is often the case in reality. In Eastwood’s film, as well as the 2004 film Mar Adentro, you don’t find quadriplegics who actually have a desire to live, and whose condition provides the means to discovering their own growth as a human person and the desire to nurture this growth in the people around them.

Secondly, illness is represented in a completely negative light, where the sole emphasis lies on the suffering and all hope is annihilated. It is as if the healthy people who tell the story were projecting in the unhealthy character, and his future, fears they have regarding the possibilities at stake, without however actually knowing the reality, without ever having lived it. In the judgment on a life “worth living” or not (as in Michael Haneke’s Amour), you see more projections of fear from a society that considers any form of possible suffering or limitations “inacceptable”, rather than the choice made by actual and real people.

A similarly biased approach emerges even more clearly in those few films that tell the stories of real people and contradict this yet prevalent tendency. Think for example of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly(Le scaphandre et le papillon, 2007) and the Intouchables (2011). These are stories told directly from the sick, or inspired by their true stories. The adversity the characters face does not eliminate, but rather reinvigorates their energy and desire to live. A recent case of a television series along the same lines is the hit Catalan, and then Italian, series called Braccialetti rossi, which was inspired by the autobiographical accounts of Albert Espinosa.

You can see, then, lights and shadows in films and television that highlight bioethics. The usefulness of educating people to discuss and analyze the stories in order to appreciate them is thus evident. These analyses go beyond the exquisitely aesthetic side, and go to the argument that each story puts forth, the rhetoric involved, and the fidelity to the narrative vocation to delve deeper into moral truth and more just behaviors.

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