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Jewish World Review March 3, 2005/ 22 Adar I, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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Clint Eastwood's euthanasia movie | Clint Eastwood is no Dirty Harry. Attentive and with a wry sense of humor, he has told me he made his living as a jazz pianist in his youth. So he understands the life force of that music. But in his acclaimed "Million Dollar Baby," he is cluelessly encouraging the euthanization of some of the disabled.

For many years, I have reported on disability rights, and have come to know people diagnosed as "vegetables" in their early years — or later as "hopelessly" disabled — who have become psychologists, corporate lawyers and even writers.

I have also learned from them that those of us who are not quadriplegic, or otherwise physically limited, may only be "temporarily able." Any of us can suddenly be disabled.

While gathering prestigious prizes, including Oscars for best picture and directing, Eastwood's "Baby" (with its no-longer-a-surprise ending) has attracted considerable criticism. For example, Lennard Davis, professor of disability studies and human development in the College of Health and Human Development Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago, writes in the Feb. 2 Chicago Tribune about the ultimate message of the film.

By admirable determination Maggie (Hilary Swank) is successfully trained to be a boxer by Frank (Eastwood). But then, paralyzed by a spinal cord injury, she becomes a quadriplegic. Distraught after losing her leg to bed sores, she beseeches her trainer to euthanize her (also known as killing her). After some hesitation, he agrees. Pertinently, Professor Davis adds:

"Since 1990 there are laws that allow (cognitive) patients to refuse treatment. A quadriplegic on a respirator could simply ask to be disconnected from the device. Doctors would have done so and administered a sedative so the person could die peacefully."

But Eastwood chose to have his character "illegally enter the hospital and disconnect the device."

That "would make her gasp like a fish on the shore," says Stephen Drake, whose mother was told he'd be a vegetable. Stephen is now research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group.

The National Spinal Cord Injury Association — devoted since 1948 "to improving the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Americans living with the results of spinal cord injury and disease and their families" — points out "this number grows by an average of 30 newly injured people each day."

Reacting to this film, which more than suggests that death is preferable to being disabled, John Hockenberry — a paraplegic for the past three decades and a correspondent for NBC news — emphasizes:

"If Mr. Eastwood is so convinced that his film is grounded in reality then perhaps he might wish to accompany me to the U.S. Army's Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland where there are 1,000 or so severely disabled soldiers from Iraq whose lives are changed forever, who were told they fought for Iraqi freedom and are now perhaps wondering, along with their families, who is going to fight for their freedom to live a full life here in America."

But instead of "Million Dollar Baby's" message, Hockenberry adds that, "there is another message of hope and strength inside Walter Reed."

Many reviewers of "Baby" did not reveal the act of euthanasia at the end of the movie because they didn't want to spoil the surprise for viewers. And those who have spoiled that ending, through vigorous public criticism of the "deliverance" of Maggie by Eastwood's character, have been severely criticized by some commentators.

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New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who vainly aspires to being a moral philosopher, wrote scathingly of those who revealed the ending: "The purpose of art is not always to send messages." But "Million Dollar Baby" has a message, which is clear — and deadly.

Disability rights activist Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet, whom I've known for years, points out that message: "Some of the (film's) audience will be newly disabled people, their family members and friends, swept along in the critically acclaimed emotion that the kindest response to someone struggling with the life changes brought on by a severe injury is, after all, to kill them."

Obviously, a filmmaker has the right to send any message he or she wants, or send no message at all. But Clint Eastwood should not be surprised that certain messages are not taken kindly by the disabled, who are not dead yet — and are as alive as he is.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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