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Million Dollar Missed Opportunity

What Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning movie could have done.

10:00 AM, Mar 1, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Whatever the case, the bigger sin of the movie is its peddling of dangerous ignorance. For example, the movie depicts Maggie as a mere slave to medical protocols. In reality, she would have had the legal right to refuse medical treatment--even if it meant that she would die. Thus, she could have ordered her respirator turned off. Indeed, given today's increasing utilitarianist tendencies in health care, bioethicists, social workers, and doctors involved with her care might well have repeatedly reminded her of that fact (hint, hint).

Secondly, while it is true that many people who become quadriplegic later in life become very depressed and suicidal--like Maggie in the movie--studies show that such existential despair is not usually permanent. Indeed, one medical report published several years ago found that the level of depression in people disabled later in life to be no different five years post-injury than that found among the able bodied. Moreover, people suffering the emotional agony that Maggie experienced in the film can be treated for their depression and their suicides prevented--without being force-sedated.

The most important point omitted from the film is that people with quadriplegia, when they are not merely warehoused in a nursing home, live very rich and satisfying lives. That Eastwood never seems to have given this matter any thought is odd, given that Christopher Reeve demonstrated famously that becoming quadriplegic does not mean that meaningful life ends. Similarly, Joni Erickson Tada became a world famous artist, disability rights activist, and Christian apologist after becoming near-quadriplegic. Meanwhile, every day tens of thousands of our disabled brothers and sisters lead meritorious and productive lives, aided by respirators and wheelchairs that come to be seen not as dignity-robbing impediments, but facilitators and tools of independent living.

Hollywood is not known for deep thinking about such matters, so it probably never occurred to Million Dollar Baby's creators to include this element in the picture. Too bad. Just think about the inspiration the movie could have delivered about the indefatigability of the human spirit, instead of its dark and ultimately defeatist death message.

Rather than allowing Maggie to surrender in bleak despair, Frankie could have instead boosted her confidence, just as he did when she was boxing. He could have brought other disabled people to see Maggie whose lives would have illustrated the rich possibilities for living amidst even the most difficult disabilities. Frankie could have talked her through the months of grueling physical therapy and given her the quiet strength to confront her venal parents. Maggie might not believe in herself anymore, Eastwood's Frankie could have barked, but he'd be damned if she could ever make him stop believing in her!

The movie could have ended with Maggie triumphing once again, perhaps having obtained an education and becoming a teacher; or, opening a business managing boxers; or perhaps, receiving a standing ovation as an inspirational speaker. Not only would the ending have been happier and truly uplifting, but it would also have been more consistent with the internal strength of Million Dollar Baby's characters.

Too bad Clint Eastwood was blind to the true potential of his story. Instead of allowing Maggie to be a true champion, he simply chose the easy way out.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.