Mount dean: Movies seen as influencing renewed momentum toward assisted suicide

WASHINGTON ¬ An increase in the number of movies that present assisted suicide in a positive light is contributing to a renewed momentum to legalize physician-assisted suicide, especially in the New England states, a panelist said at a Sept. 20 webinar sponsored by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

Films such as “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Sea Inside,” both rated PG-13 as containing material that may be inappropriate for children under 13, “dull our repugnance” for assisted suicide and “suggest that some lives are not worth living,” said Capuchin Franciscan Father Dan Mindling, academic dean at Mount St. Mary’s University Seminary in Emmitsburg.

He quoted assisted suicide proponent Derek Humphry as saying in 2004 that advocates of assisted suicide “must introduce our subject more healthily into literature, media and the arts so that it is as commonplace to read, watch or listen to in our lives as watching sporting events or monitoring political news.”

The webinar took place less than two weeks after Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley certified the language of an initiative for the November 2012 ballot that would make assisted suicide legal in the commonwealth. Certification allows proponents of the initiative to begin to gather the 68,911 signatures required by mid-November for the initiative effort to continue.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston strongly condemned the proposal in a Sept. 18 homily at the annual Red Mass sponsored by the Catholic Lawyers’ Guild of Boston.

“We hope the citizens of the commonwealth will not be seduced by (words like) dignity and compassion, which are means to disguise the sheer brutality of helping people to kill themselves,” the cardinal said.

In the webinar, Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, reviewed the recent history of assisted suicide efforts and said that although its proponents had “predicted a cross-country sweep,” they found great resistance between 1994 and 2007, when assisted suicide began to seem like an idea “whose time had come and gone.”

But in 2008, the Hemlock Society ¬ which had reinvented itself under the name Compassion & Choices ¬ began a new strategy, targeting the “unchurched and libertarian segments” of the Pacific Northwest and New England, Doerflinger said.

Voters in Washington state approved assisted suicide that year, and it was permitted in Montana by a 2009 court decision, but recent legislative efforts to permit assisted suicide in Vermont, New Hampshire and several other states were turned back.

Doerflinger urged Catholics and others who oppose physician-assisted suicide to read the U.S. bishops’ pastoral statement, “To Live Each Day With Dignity,” approved in June.

“With expanded funding from wealthy donors, assisted suicide proponents have renewed their aggressive nationwide campaign through legislation, litigation and public advertising, targeting states they see as most susceptible to their message,” the document says. “If they succeed, society will undergo a radical change.”

Sister Janice McGrane, a Sister of St. Joseph who became a disabilities activist after rheumatoid arthritis began to limit her activities, had been scheduled to speak at the webinar but was unable to attend because of the deaths of two members of her religious community. Jan Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, read the remarks Sister Janice had prepared.

Assisted suicide presents “a great danger for those of us with disabilities,” she said, encouraging those participating in the webinar to do everything they can to help people with disabilities remain in the community with “appropriate Medicaid services.”

“Living in the community is very pro-life and pro-family,” Benton said, speaking on behalf of Sister Janice.

Father Mindling reviewed church teaching on suicide, saying that it often resulted from confusion or “great psychological disturbance.” But he said Blessed John Paul II made clear in his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” that assistance in another’s suicide “can never be excused even if requested.”

Speaking about the media’s influence on suicide, he cited a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which showed that the portrayal of explicit and graphic suicide tripled in top box-office films between 1950 and 2006. The study’s lead author concluded that “modeling of suicide in media can increase the incidence of suicide,” the priest said.

Patrick E. Jamieson, the lead author, also said that “exposure to movie-portrayed suicide correlates with thinking that one cannot get effective treatment for mental health problems.”

“There is something seriously wrong with a movie ratings system that attaches a PG-13 rating to a movie containing explicit graphic modeling of suicide,” Jamieson added in a news release about the study, published in the August 2011 issue of Archives of Suicide Research.

Father Mindling made available to webinar participants a discussion guide for watching movies about assisted suicide. Other resources related to assisted suicide were included in a toolkit on the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s website.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.