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Bioethics at the Movies

James Bowman

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Whose Life is it Anyway?" Brian Clark's play of that name about a quadriplegic who wants to die is now over 30 years old'it started as a BBC television play in 1972'and has just had a sex-change with its latest revival in the West End of London. A whole new line of argument about the awfulness of paralysis and the right of the paralyzed to take their own lives is suggested by putting Kim Cattrall into the starring role played by Tom Conti in the original London stage production of 1978 and Richard Dreyfuss in the film version of 1981. The piquancy of casting Miss Cattrall as an American sculptress who is paralyzed in an accident lies in the audience's presumed familiarity with her as saucy, sexy Samantha in the HBO series Sex and the City. Accordingly, in her new role she calls attention to her own, still voluptuous but now shattered sexuality, adding a new dimension of poignancy to the question of what it is that makes life worth living. Or not worth living. But before that question can be answered, there is the prior question of the play's title, whose answer is more easily assumed than explored.

For what has made this play what they call "a perennial crowd-pleaser" in spite of some critics' complaints that it is too one-sided, less a debate than a lecture, is the assumption that theatre audiences will automatically answer that their lives are their own'as indeed they generally do. It's not clear whether Mr. Clark or the many fans of his play even recognize that there is another answer'which is perhaps another reason for the casting of Miss Cattrall. Fans of Samantha know that she is no stranger to emphatic assertions of proprietorship, if not propriety, in her life, and her sexual promiscuity in Sex and the City amounted in the eyes of many, including herself, to a feminist statement. There too she was asking "Whose life is it anyway?" in response to patriarchal notions of female sexuality as a male possession'which is the political way of characterizing the expectation (among both males and females, by the way, who are equally susceptible to infection by patriarchal values) of female chastity and fidelity. There too, where the question arises of whose life it is, the answer is increasingly supposed to be that it is the woman's own.

These two assertions of proprietorship are seen by many feminists to be connected, since the patriarchy is represented both by the father or husband who demands chastity or fidelity and the God of traditional religious belief who forbids suicide'besides, of course, also expecting chastity and fidelity. I think that those who make this connection are right to do so, because it reminds us that not only are questions of sexual morality and euthanasia thus connected, so are a whole range of moral issues, including abortion, by this same question of ownership which often divides the house between theism and atheism. Atheists will naturally assume that their lives are their own'Who else's would they be?'while theists will with somewhat less predictability assume that, as they have learned to regard their lives as gifts from God, they cannot therefore be their own to do with as they wish. From the answer to this question all else follows. Belief in a Creator-God entails belief in a purpose to His creation. And if creation, particularly the creation of life, has a purpose then it is very hard indeed not to suppose that our lives are given to us with the purposes of the Creator in mind and not as absolute possessions to do with as we like.

Read this article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 23 Jun 05

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