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February 2005, Volume 12 Nr. 6, Issue 141

Million Dollar Babies

JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

The "better dead than disabled" attitude is riding high in the movie world this year, with "The Sea Inside" and "Million Dollar Baby" winning nominations and awards. While the former is part of the Ramon Sampedro’s publicity campaign for his own "right to die", the latter looks like another example of Clint Eastwood's contempt for people with disabilities. Eastwood spent $600,000 to fight a lawsuit that noted that he should have spent about $7,000 to make his hotel accessible.  He had half a decade after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to do this, but says he should have had more warning.  He continues to campaign for a "notification" amendment to the ADA, that would require 90 days notice that one is going to sue under the law.  This would virtually eliminate the meager power of the ADA, which has no other enforcement mechanism except that a disabled person sue the offending business. Eastwood  made a movie that looks to me (and to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association) like "Clint Eastwood's Revenge.”

Eastwood, famed for his care for detail, drops all pretense of authenticity during the last half hour, the surprise plot twist that critics and moviegoers are supposed to keep secret.  This is where I am supposed to trumpet “Warning! Spoilers ahead!” I don’t care if I spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film.  Maggie, the plucky boxer played by Hillary Swank, sustains a cervical fracture.  She, after much rehab, many months, and the amputation of one leg, asks Frankie (Clint Eastwood, her mentor-trainer) to help her die.  Specifically, she asks him to do what her dad had done “for” the disabled dog of her childhood.  This dog did not, from her tale, seem to have been in pain, and I wonder if her dying dad killed the dog because he knew she and her brother, who laughed at the dog’s disability, would not care for it after he was gone. The movie indicated that Maggie had the finest care, a way to take college classes, the best assistive technology and assistant services that money could buy.  But Maggie, this strong woman, who worked so hard and long to become a star boxer, wanted to die.  She had had her days in the spotlight and did not want to live “frozen.” 

Now, an otherwise healthy, living person who wants to die is treated for depression. Only terminally ill folks and severely disabled folks are encouraged to exercise their “choice” of suicide.  Maggie is not dying. But most movie critics I have read seem to either approve or at least do not protest Maggie’s decision.  The usual words of “courage”, “love” and “choice” are used, words we have all heard in the “right to die” debates, words used in the legal defenses of parents who do “for” their disabled children what Frankie does for Maggie. They are common even in cases in which there was no request by the individual to be killed, including cases where the child was killed brutally (beaten or stabbed to death by the loving parent). 

Although the film is based on a short story from the middle of the last century, it was updated to be contemporary.  Eastwood's abandonment of accuracy during the final crisis of his tale indicates that he is unable to tell the story he wants without resort to glaring anachronisms.  These inaccuracies, of which Eastwood certainly is aware, serve only to allow him to present a story where Frankie’s aid to Maggie is the romantic consummation of his love, rather than the murder of convenience that such acts often are.

Maggie, as a person on a ventilator, does not need Frankie’s help to die.  He did not have to sneak into an oddly unsecured rehab center (no locks? no security staff?) turn off the vent and inject her with, of all things, adrenaline.  Since the early 1990’s, a competent adult can make the request herself, the staff must honor the request and provide sedatives to ease the death. Instead, we can assume that the character Maggie had a horrific death, suffocating while her heart raced wildly. This is a “mercy killing”?

Some folks get situationally depressed after a spinal cord injury, and soon after the injury, some express suicidal desires. But there is a pervasive, and wrong, idea that "better dead than THAT" is a reasonable, widespread opinion among folks with SCI (spinal cord injury). It is not. One largely ignored consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is newly disabled soldiers and others.  Imagine one of them seeing this widely praised film, seeing a physically healthy quadriplegic with good care insist that her life is not worth living; seeing the person who loves her best, after perfunctory soul-searching, acquiesce to her wish and kill her.

I have met a lot of “million dollar babies”, children who spent their first weeks or months in neonatal intensive care units.  The technology and knowledge to keep them alive, and later the means to deal with ongoing physical conditions, is impressive and progressing.  It is common to hear the parents of these children using that term, “million dollar baby,” reflecting the tendency in our culture to assign monetary value.  Why should parents be aware of the dollar cost of catastrophic medical care, or of the educational and other services used by their children?  In a culture that values human lives, should such assessments even be made? 

Disabled people are acutely aware that they are resented for using “more than their share” of “limited resources.”  Many of them internalize these assumptions. A great fear expressed in relation to disability is: “I don’t want to be a burden.”  The implications of that statement are profound. Imagine a culture where a person unable to bathe without assistance is no more considered “a burden” or “without dignity” than is a person who cannot fix his own car.

In some cases where someone not terminally ill requested the "right to die" (such as Larry McAfee), the despair was more related to lack of services than to disability. When one is not offered assistive technology and personal assistive services, when one is told that one is "a burden", when we abandon our responsibility to one another as a society, when we forget that a third of us will become disabled at some time in our lives, denying that disability is a normal consequence of being breakable biological beings, then it becomes easier to "help" one another die. Such circumstances are not the individual tragedies of people with medical problems, but the societal tragedy of institutional bigotry. 

Why do we not praise the "bravery" of other depressed folks who kill themselves? Why is it a tragedy for a bullied teen to kill himself, but a reasonable choice for someone "wheelchair-bound" to commit suicide, and an act of love/despair/bravery for the parent of a disabled teen to kill their child? (Christine Busalacchi's death, among many others.) 

Of course, it is more satisfying, more like movies and books, if we have a conclusion, and the death of an individual is a conclusion. In life, messy and contingent, unpredictable and long, there are lots of little stories overlapping.  If we dare allow some disability into our popular movies, the preferred formula is that it be all "inspiring" or all "tragic", because the day-to-day lives of folks with disabilities are as mundane and as bad TV as anyone else's.

As a parent of a disabled adult, I have a "million dollar baby", too. Yes, he has "cost" all of us who pay taxes and insurance premiums and has contributed little financially as yet.  Most of his classmates have also contributed little; teenagers have only had a short time to work. So, in the words of the old eugenicists, he has been a "useless eater" for nearly two decades.

How much easier and cleaner and more like a movie if I could have spent these last two decades with the halo of tragic motherhood which would have been mine to wear if he had just died during one of those many times he came close. Maybe I could have written a screenplay about my wonderful dead son, instead of using my writing time actually living with him. And, how much more money, after all, is this kind, intelligent, creative person going to cost us "normals"?

Further information:

Ragged Edge On-Line
Mouth Magazine
Not Dead Yet

Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, Marta Russell, Common Courage Press (1998)

Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the Case Against Disability Rights, Mary Johnson, Advocado Press (2003 )

Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?, Collection by Emi Koyama, 2000 - 2004 Confluere Publications  

Interchange, Vol 3, Aug 2003, Emi Koyama

Movie Stars and Sensuous Scars: Essays in the Journey from Disability Shame to Disability Pride, Steven E. Brown, Ph.D., ISBN# 0-595-28893-6, iUniverse, Inc. (2003)

Art of a Shaman,   Frank Moore, Inter-Relations (1990)  (Also see Frank's paintings, performances, poetry and prose).

© 2005 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

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