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March 27, 2008
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faith article
A Patient in a Vegetative State Is a Human Person: Interview With Dr. Gian Luigi Gigli, of a Catholic Federation
“After the Pope's words, I believe that for a doctor, a nurse or a Catholic health institution, nutrition and hydration may only be interrupted if they no longer achieve their effect, or impose grave burdens on the patient... or family members, something which should not occur in civilized countries, in which basic care should not be a luxury.”  [ZENIT]

Feeding Tubes and Gut Reactions: The Role of the Church in Bioethical Questions, by Harold Fickett
The secular world says that in matters of life and death, the individual should be left alone to make whatever decision he wishes. My own experience with my dying father showed me the "hard cases" prove exactly the opposite.

Killing Terri Schiavo, by Rev. Robert Johansen
Terri Schiavo, the cognitively disabled woman whose husband is attempting to have her denied food and fluids, will be starved to death beginning March 18, unless the courts intervene. This is her story.

National Spinal Cord Injury Association
Founded in 1948, the National Spinal Cord Injury Association is the nation's oldest and largest civilian organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Americans living with the results of spinal cord injury and disease (SCI/D) and their families.

Not Dead Yet
"Since 1983, many people with disabilities have opposed the assisted suicide and euthanasia movement. Though often described as compassionate, legalized medical killing is really about a deadly double standard for people with severe disabilities, including both conditions that are labeled terminal and those that are not."

Ragged Edge Online
Online magazine which addresses disability issues.

What's Love Got to Do With It? The Ethical Contradictions of Peter Singer, by Peter J. Colosi
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer says some humans—particularly fetuses, newborn babies, and elderly people suffering from dementia—should be killed if their deaths will reduce overall suffering. Never mind that Singer broke all of his own rules when his mother became ill with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Judging ‘Million Dollar Baby’

For the two of us, going to a movie requires planning. It's hard to be spontaneous when you're in a wheelchair, or trudging along beside one. But nothing was going to keep us from judging Clint Eastwood's controversial new movie for ourselves.

Million Dollar Baby

It's a Friday before noon. One doctor has already made a routine emergency visit this morning. Food shopping must happen before it starts snowing. But we're determined to take in a movie. It has been a challenging week, and Ruth and I simply must get out.

Ruth is a quadriplegic. I am her personal aide. We want to see Million Dollar Baby.

Million Dollar Baby is up for an Academy Award in seven categories. It's about a female boxer who is coached by a curmudgeonly, old Catholic played by Clint Eastwood. Ultimately, the young boxer, played by Hilary Swank, sustains a severe spinal cord injury that leaves her paralyzed and on a ventilator. She asks her coach to help end her life. Eastwood's character, Frankie, finally agrees to do so after visiting his priest and searching his soul.

As I sat in my wheelchair watching the movie, I found myself thinking about how I felt after becoming a quadriplegic. Did I think about assisted suicide? Did I think my life was over?

The answer to both questions is yes.

As I sat in my wheelchair watching the movie, I found myself thinking about how I felt after becoming a quadriplegic.
We're busy working through the logistics—whose car, which theater, what else we can jam in while taking on the so-called real world. We're fairly adept at anticipating and then managing all the hassles involved. Still, going anywhere—especially to a movie—requires planning. Spontaneity acquires a different meaning when you're in a wheelchair, or trudging along beside one.

Our big debate is whether we'll sit together. We already know the plot line: athletic young Maggie Fitzgerald gets a sucker punch that leads to a C1/2 complete spinal cord injury; begs coach to assist her suicide; (Catholic) coach takes her out by injecting a massive dose of adrenaline into her IV line. Act of courage? Act of love? The critics are jumping all over this one. So are the SCI (spinal cord injury) activists. We, however, are reserving judgment. Just barely.

Certainly, life as I knew it before my spinal cord injury was over in many ways. At first, I did not want to live. I fantasized about escaping my paralyzed body. I didn't want to deal with the physical limitations I faced every day. I felt useless and hopeless. I didn't want to be a burden. I simply could not envision having any kind of life.

When and who will decide that the quality of a life is so low that life should be ended?
Ruth has a slew of opinions about Clint Eastwood. I say it's bad enough that he no longer looks like the hunky Rowdy Yates of Rawhide, now I have to learn that he's no friend to the disability community? Ruth says everything they're posting online slams the movie for making death seem like the better option.

When she has time to read up on this stuff is beyond me, since anything having to do with personal hygiene is a major production and getting dressed can take up to three hours. Feeding consumes another hunk of time, although I will admit that some of that time is taken up with chatting and laughing. "It's just like going out to dinner," I tell curious able-bodied friends, "except I'm not the one eating."

As an attorney, I'd certainly discussed Living Wills and Medical Directives with clients. Some asked that life be ended upon certain conditions, while others went great lengths to make sure I put into writing that every effort should be made to keep them alive.

As a Catholic, I've had my own struggle with the right to die. I knew that taking my own life would be considered a sin. But, I also believed that the God who gives us life, takes that life from us at the right time. The good Sisters of St. Joseph taught me that life is a sacred gift. Stewardship of my physical body during this earthly life does not include subjectively deciding under what circumstances I will usurp God's will.

We banter about how we might exit the theater afterwards. "I could wail about wanting to die," says Ruth. "I could audibly mumble, ‘just wait until we get home,’” I reply.
If we sit together, I know I'll pick up Ruth's vibes; even more so than usual. Since I know darn well we'll end up writing something, I want to create the illusion of independent thought. Is this possible? After all, our thinking about life and death has been formed by our Catholic beliefs about the sanctity of life. It has also been shaped by encounters with deathexpected, unexpected, and thwarted. We've both had the dubious privilege of shutting off someone's life support after a lengthy process of informed consent. I've had the blessing of feeling life whisper goodbye from my father's hands. I've seen the presence of a loving, merciful God in all of it, although I cannot argue that point with intelligence; I'm guessing that Ruth, the attorney, can.

In addition, Ruth's mind and mine have melded with frustration from sparring with a health care system that makes the concept of "disability benefits' even more oxymoronic than it already is. It's a safe bet that we'll both have spasms if Million Dollar Baby has a hospital scene.

And then there's the amazing congruence that comes from the time Ruth and I spend together. There's nothing wrong with Ruth's brain, but I still have to get into it to become her hands, arms, legs, and feet. How to create space for psycho-social independence within the confines of near-complete physical dependence is a challenge. Privacy and intimacy acquire different meaning when you're in a wheelchair, or vacuuming around one.

The Catholic Church has issued directives on euthanasia. A statement released by the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1991, reads in part:

"Being able to choose the time and manner of one's death, without regard to what is chosen, is presented as the ultimate freedom. A decision to take one's life or to allow a physician to kill a suffering patient, however, is very different from a decision to refuse extraordinary or disproportionately burdensome treatment... As Catholic leaders and moral teachers, we believe that life is the most basic gift of a loving God—a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion."

I want people to see this film even though—and perhaps because—they know the ending. And then, I want them to get angry…
Legislation has begun to reflect a different view. Oregon passed this country's first Death With Dignity Act in 1997. This reflects a shift from the traditional "sanctity of life" to a "quality of life" ethic, something Pope John Paul II has referred to as "The Culture of Death." Obviously, such legislation will lead to subjective and arbitrary standards. When and who will decide that the quality of a life is so low that life should be ended? And what about patients who are unable to speak or who are in the throes of a temporary depression?

For the purposes of critiquing Million Dollar Baby, I think we should sit separately. Ruth is okay with that. "I'll shout when I want M&Ms," she says.

We banter about how we might exit the theater afterwards. "I could wail about wanting to die," says Ruth. "I could audibly mumble, 'just wait until we get home,'" I reply. We crack up laughing. Laughter is good medicine that doesn't require an elaborate, convoluted form of administration. We're not opposed to weeping, which I maintain makes for a great complexion. Mostly, we laugh because we can't afford the energy-leeching luxury of anything else.

Having had my own painful adjustment to being a quadriplegic, I know that it's normal to feel depressed and, perhaps, even suicidal at first. Exactly how normal would it have been for me not to feel devastated by the loss of sensation and movement in my entire body? Of course I was depressed andas I came out of shock to face the physical and psychosocial demands of life as a quadriplegic—grief-stricken.

Neither of us is laughing by the end of this movie. Grabbing our coats, I'm up and out of my seat as the credits begin to roll. I plunk myself down in the only seat left in an otherwise empty row reserved for wheelchairs and turn to Ruth.

"Able-ist crap."

She says it first and we immediately start tripping over each other's sentences: "Like that bedsore would've become gangrene without anyone noticing." "How come that swanky rehab didn't send in a team of psychiatrists and social workers?" "Did you catch how they draped a cross over her ventilator?"

I’ve lived long enough to learn that a life of dignity, usefulness, and hope is possible for a quadriplegic.
We go on about Million Dollar Baby for days and that's when I realize that for all its problems (e.g., the musical score is puerile), I've seen an important movie during this year's Lent. I don't want people to boycott this film. I want them to see it even though—and perhaps becausethey know the ending. And then, I want them to get angry, not at God, but about flaws in the structural apparatus of faith (i.e., religion) that would make assisted suicide seem an appropriate response instead of becoming a living witness to suffering. I want viewers to wonder why the character of Maggie Fitzgerald has the determination to become a prize fighter but not enough spiritual strength to manage life as a quadriplegic. I especially want Christians to remember that throughout our history, the Spirit has lived large and worked well within broken bodies; something to ponder as we come to the Cross during this holy season.

It took nearly a decade for me to arrive at a place of acceptance. I've chosen life, believing that it's not my place to decide to die because life is too difficult, inconvenient, or no longer to my liking. Some may feel the choice to commit suicide is a form of ultimate freedom. What I know is that by surrendering my option to play God, I've lived long enough to learn that a life of dignity, usefulness, and hope is possible for a quadriplegic. If only the character in Million Dollar Baby could've stayed in the ring of life long enough to discover this for herself.

February 25, 2005

MEREDITH GOULD is the author of “Deliberate Acts of Kindness: Service as a Spiritual Practice” (Doubleday) as well as “The Catholic Home” (Doubleday) and “Come to the Table” (Plowshares Publishing). She welcomes readers comments at www.meredithgould.com

RUTH HARRIGAN is an attorney, disabilities rights advocate, and author. She is currently working on a book about spiritual inclusion and the Church. She welcomes comments at: http://imaquad.blogspot.com

Copyright © 2005, Meredith Gould and Ruth Harrigan. All rights reserved.

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03.08.05   merelysilent says:
I just saw the movie yesterday and already knew the ending. I don't think it justifies PAS because of three things. First Maggie as a boxer never learned endurance, always trying to win by knockout in the first round. She was boxing and living by the saying "better burn-out than rust-out" (Frankie kept on telling her she wasn't breathing properly so she wouldn't last a long fight, and in the hospital the most prominment symbol of her disability is the breathing apparataus). Second, after Danger is brutilized, Scrap tries to encourage him by saying that any boxer could lose a fight but was important was to keep fighting. Third was Scrap's musings on where Frankie still might be in his letter to Frankie's daughter. Frankie has already lost his family and now he has lost his friends, his fighters and his gym, something that earlier was all that mattered. So the priest is correct, Frankie is lost. So I think that Eastwood is actually condemning the "culture of death" crowd for not encouaging others, for encouaging brutality and for making an idol of youth. But I am not a Catholic nor am I in the hospital so probably I just don't understand.

03.02.05   kennyw says:
Oh boy. I feel like one of those people commenting on something he hasn't seen. Maybe I should go into politics? But I'm not actually talking about Million Dollar Baby. I don't go to the movies. Oh, not quite so: the last two movies I saw in theaters were both religiously themed: Dogma and The Passion of the Christ. Can you tell my religious leanings? No? Good.I remember reading that Christopher Reeve said that shortly after his injury, when he was first in Kessler Institute, he had a dream that he was making love to his wife. When he awakened, he was so disconsolate that if he could have done so he would have killed himself. He did not. Instead he became a spokesman for embryonic stem cell research. Would anyone like to blame him for the point of view he espoused that was purchased with his physical being?Of course there are people who suffer horrible injuries that leave them quads. I could leave work today and become one them, right? There but for the Grace of God. How would I react if this were visited upon me. I am 61 years old. I believe I would pray for death. Then again, I might be wrong. I might fight back, not so I could wind up replacing Gregory Hines as the tapdancing master of the world, but so I could simply accept what had happened to me and get on with a readjusted life.I would also not judge others. That is what I fear I have read here: the use of disability as privilege. There is a saying among recoverees: "Don't leave 'til the miracle happens." Did Maggie Fitzgerald expect the miracle of having her body restored to its former vigor? Maybe the miracle would have been acceptance and finding a new direction for her life. I don't know. I do know the judgmentalism of this story was both understandable and disturbing. The old question "Whose life is it, anyway?" can be answered in two contradictory ways. One is "My life belongs to the God who gave it to me, it's on loan." The other is "I cannot endure this." Ruth and Meredith treat Maggie Fitzgerald as some kind of moral coward. Maybe she is. Maybe there is a pain in her soul, however, that is worse than her shattered spine. Maybe it is her private pain, albeit she is a movie character, and lacks the options of spirit to find that other path for herself. The Church's doctrine is fine assuming you have the faith to begin with. Yet much is made of Maggie's decision, not of the practicing Catholic trainer who knows the rules. What about the priest he goes to consult? Which circle of Hell is reserved for him?

03.01.05   jrevans says:
This article is a perfect rejoinder to the "culture of death" crowd. Hilary Swank may look beautiful, but Meredith Gould and Ruth Harrigan are beautiful.

02.25.05   Godspy says:
For the two of us, going to a movie requires planning. It's hard to be spontaneous when you're in a wheelchair, or trudging along beside one. But nothing was going to keep us from judging Clint Eastwood's controversial new movie for ourselves.

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