By Amy E. Hasbrouck
Once again, a film about “euthanasia” has won an Oscar. Back in the ‘70s the tear-jerker movies were about people dying of cancer. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was people dying of AIDS. For the 21st century, the new chic is euthanasia/assisted suicide/”mercy killing” movies. Million Dollar Baby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,The English Patient, The Sea Inside, Un Dimanche à Kigali, Le Temps qui Reste, The Barbarian Invasion (Les Invasions Barbares), Magnus – all have taken on euthanasia/assisted suicide/”mercy killing” from the point of view of non-disabled white people and come to the same conclusion; great idea!
Now we have the film Amour, directed by Michael Haneke, whose leading actors took the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2012. The story concerns Anna and George, an elderly couple, former music teachers who live in a nice apartment in Paris. After a series of strokes, Anna is partially paralyzed and her memory begins to fail. The couple withdraws, refusing contact and the help of friends, relatives and neighbours, while George cares for Anna as her mental and physical abilities decline. In the end he suffocates her.
Given the film industry’s adoration of movies that end with a man “lovingly” killing a spouse, it was no surprise when Amour was awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture.
In the real world, many studies have shown that in cases of “assisted suicide”/euthanasia/”mercy killing in elderly couples, the woman is generally an unwilling victim, and there is often a history of domestic violence. This fact is rarely reflected in the superficial media coverage in the immediate aftermath of such gruesome crimes. By the time the truth of the matter has been uncovered, the media spotlight has moved on, and the public is left with the same false impression; “he did it for love.”
There has been almost no discussion in the francophone media of the disability and human rights problems with the narrative of Amour, and little in the Anglophone press either. No critics questioned the film’s seemingly inevitable ending, or George’s motives for killing his wife. Not surprising, but disappointing anyway.
It’s troubling that films like this come out so often, but fail to educate the public about the real issues in assisted suicide and euthanasia. In the case of Clint Eastwood’s film, his consistent and vocal opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act suggests a possible motive for killing off his disabled protagonist. For other writers and filmmakers, the examination of the issue generally arises more from fear of disability, unresolved grief, or other feelings common to non-disabled people.
Like other media portrayals, these films usually show people with disability either as sad, tragic and incapable victims, or as inspirational over-achievers, but never as ordinary human beings. Nor do the filmmakers focus on their struggles against the external barriers and discrimination that limit their life options, focusing instead on the physical changes that are natural to the human experience.
The message is clear; the lives of those of us with disabilities are not worth living. We are better off dead, and the sooner the better. These attitudes only perpetuate fear of and discrimination against disabled people, and the more often this lie is spoken, the deeper entrenched the fear becomes. Through that discrimination, the lie becomes the truth, and pressure grows to allow assisted suicide and euthanasia for old, ill and disabled people.
Amy E. Hasbrouck is the director of Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet, a project of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities whose purpose is to unite and give voice to the disability opposition to physician assisted suicide.