Skip to comments.Bioethical Tearjerker Misses the Story
Posted on 08/20/2009 3:53:58 PM PDT by NYer
Hollywood takes up a social issue, hard data and clarity can be elusive. My Sisters Keeper, a drama in theaters this summer, provides a handy example of Tinseltowns tendency to let tears trump truth.
Told through a series of flashbacks, the plot is set in motion by a medical specialists shocking proposal to a mother desperate to save her gravely ill child: Create a genetically engineered sibling who can donate bone marrow and other vital tissue to cheat death.
That suggestion would stop most parents in their tracks. But this mom grabs hold of the idea and runs with it. Fast-forward more than a decade later. The genetically engineered child prompts a family crisis when she refuses to continue her designated role as her sisters savior.
The setup for this family crisis provides a rich environment for a cinematic meditation on the growing social threat posed by value-free medicine. Instead, the film glides past the utilitarian impulse that sparks the mothers initial decision. My Sisters Keeper also ignores the death-dealing that ultimately produces a living child. The camera doesnt linger in the laboratory, where technicians kill the embryos that fail to provide the ideal genetic match.
The omissions underscore the way our entertainment often distracts us from the grim reality of antilife reproductive technologies and stem-cell research.
While movies frequently address the real and perceived dangers posed by corporate malfeasance, for example, scientific innovation that directly attacks innocent human life rarely provokes outrage.
Indeed, like so many Hollywood dramas that flirt with emerging social issues, My Sisters Keeper quickly morphs into a celluloid tearjerker. Our emotions are held hostage by the dying patients struggle to resolve family conflicts before her untimely demise.
Yet this film adaptation of the best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult also accomplishes something the director probably didnt intend: Its sentimentality will prompt some viewers to recoil from the emotional arguments that cloud our ability to scrutinize immoral choices.
The film opens with the decision by Anna, the genetically engineered sibling, to seek medical emancipation from her parents. If successful, her move will foil her moms plan to keep her older daughter, Kate, alive. Kates kidneys have failed, and the doctors want to take one from her healthy younger sister.
As the family absorbs the impact of Annas refusal to help her sister, the camera explores the inner thoughts of the mother, whose maternal protectiveness becomes a consuming obsession; the father, whose marriage remains on hold indefinitely; the older brothers, whose pedestrian needs receive scant attention; and the patient herself, an inspiring but doomed adolescent.
Sara, the mother, played by Cameron Diaz, offers the most compelling and honest characterization. Her refusal to surrender her role as the chief advocate for her dying child both inspires and disturbs.
We all know parents like Sara, and a case can be made that value-free science feeds their ferocious pursuit of miracle cures no matter the cost.
She has made an idol of her childs survival, sacrificing everything to feed the beast of maternal need.
Yet family members and medical specialists can find no arguments to challenge her stance. Indeed, when Anna finally refuses to donate her kidney, she bases her claim on her right to control her own body.
The film imposes a secular, modern spin on the action, leaving our questions about the characters deeper motivations unaddressed. For example, Saras husband, Brian, operates in the background, and we never understand the reason for his apparent passivity. He doesnt question Saras initial decision to conceive a donor child.
Has he ceded all authority to his wife or does he share her desperation? If he has qualms about creating a child as a kind of object for use, he doesnt say so.
Once, the culture understood that children had a right to be born from the loving one flesh union of their mother and father. Has Brian forgotten this truth or did he ever learn it? What kind of moral credibility does such a man possess? None, you might suspect, but the film celebrates his quiet sensitivity and tender moments with his children.
While the tears flow, the characters operate as if they were in the same sterile laboratory environment that facilitated the conception of Anna. Indeed, even Anna, who owes her very existence to the precise genetic requirements of her sister, is a well-adjusted young teen who never rages against her unsought familial obligations.
The character of Anna doesnt add up: Children care deeply about the origins of their own existence. When a friend of mine told his son that he had been married before and lost his wife to a terminal illness, his son, deeply affected, finally responded, You mean I might not have been born? Anna doesnt seem concerned about such matters.
Of course, there is another more sinister explanation for Annas steady equilibrium: Perhaps she has been raised to accept her designated position in the family hierarchy, a position subordinate to her older, and possibly more valued, sibling.
That thought occurred to me as I recalled the plotline of Kazuo Ishiguros Never Let Me Go, a haunting brave-new-world novel published in 2005. In Ishiguros story about a British boarding school for human clones created and schooled to serve as adult organ donors, the students slowly accept their fate and never rebel. Ishiguro implies that the schools specially designed pedagogy engenders the students passive acceptance of their fate.
Films like My Sisters Keeper are much less ambitious or clear-eyed about the immediate and long-term dangers of scientific hubris that brooks no moral limits. Thats unfortunate, because now, more than ever, we need opportunities for moral reflection. Recently, the National Institutes of Health issued new guidelines that will make it easier for scientists who perform embryo-killing stem-cell research to advance their work.
My Sisters Keeper allows us to grieve for a dying child and her family. But the tearjerker formula allows viewers to ignore a more important story that Hollywood has no taste for telling.