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Million dollar blunder

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, March 3, 2005

If you have not seen the Oscar-winning movie “Million Dollar Baby,” stop reading this article right now because I am about to blow the ending for you. Of all the rich layers of storyline, the one layer that elicited the most profound soul searching on my part showed itself at the very end of the film when Frankie (Clint Eastwood) submits to Maggie’s (Hilary Swank) desire to remove her breathing tube, thus ending the young woman’s life. Lying in a hospital bed permanently paralyzed from the neck down after a devastating boxing injury, Maggie wishes for death instead of living the life she has inherited. Frankie at first resists, but finally acquiesces.This is an example of euthanasia. As a practicing Catholic, I have always assented to the Church’s teaching on this matter, which flows from the belief that human life is sacred from conception to natural death. “Million Dollar Baby” prompted me for perhaps the first time, however, to deeply ponder the natural death end of the consistent ethic of life. Maggie’s desire and Frankie’s subsequent action seemed to me to be objectively wrong. I found myself with the overwhelming feeling that Maggie’s view of her life – a view which was once so robust and relatively expansive – had become detrimentally narrow. Lying on her bed unable to move, Maggie came to define herself in terms of what she had once been able to do rather than who she was presently, even though who she was presently was inextricably connected to who she had been. Her desire to die was then, I think, a product of a radically incomplete vision of herself. Frankie instinctively knew that there was something wrong with Maggie’s desire. Frankie’s parish priest provided what I thought was a very insightful observation when he said that should Frankie go along with Maggie’s wishes, which he would perhaps never again be able to find himself. As I perceived it, Frankie violated his conscience by giving in to Maggie’s wishes. He had been willing and eager to help Maggie continue on with her life in a new way, but in the end he quieted this will and acted in another manner.This issue brought to mind two real-life situations – those of Christopher Reeve and Teri Schiavo. Reeve, who once played Superman, was confined to a wheelchair after an injury in 1995 – paralyzed, like Maggie, from the neck down. Rather than choosing death, though, Reeve embraced fully the new form of his life. He struggled through numerous medical complications and hardships, but attempted to experience the fullness of life just like anyone else. Teri Schiavo’s is the woman in Florida who must be fed through a tube in order to live. Her family is battling against her husband in the courts because he wants to remove the tube from Teri and therefore end her life. In Teri’s case, she is unable to speak in order to express her own desire in the matter, so the courts are weighing what her intention would be by considering the wishes of those closest to her. I thought of Teri after seeing the movie. I was led to ponder what value the gift of life has when someone is brought to a state like hers. I honestly asked myself, “Would it be better to die at that point than to go on living in such a way?” In the end, my answer was, “no,” I would choose life, even if it meant living without many of the faculties that are natural to me. What I witnessed in “Million Dollar Baby” has led me to believe even more fully that life is precious in all its forms, that it should be protected and promoted, and that the premature taking of a life is objectively wrong. Ultimately, I think the root cause of a desire for one to die prematurely or to take the life of another in these situations may be an inadequate view of self. Limited definitions of life can lead one to accept the unnatural termination it.

Lenny DeLorenzoInstitute for Church LifeRecruitment CoordinatorMarch 2