A New Generation of Conservative Thought

Mercy killing goes mainstream

By Dr. Grace Vuoto

February 22, 2011

Hollywood is attempting to lower our standards once again. In the blockbuster movie Sanctum, killing in order to prevent further pain of those who are badly wounded is portrayed as courageous and heroic. Welcome to our brave new world where men can act as gods.

In Western culture, killing of any kind, including alleviating the pain of those who are grievously ill, has generally been viewed as an abomination. While Hollywood movies regularly depict violent acts, they rarely venture into the topic of euthanasia. Hence, killing is not often presented as an “act of kindness.” When it is, the gravity and controversy of the deed is clearly conveyed. For example, in Million Dollar Baby (2004), --produced, directed and starring Clint Eastwood--a gritty woman seeks to become a successful boxer. Her trainer, played by Mr. Eastwood, guides her toward fulfilling her dream. She is then gravely injured by a blow to the head and is a quadriplegic. In a final hospital scene, following the girl’s request to end her life, the trainer kills her as an “act of love.”

The act of euthanasia—while horrifying—is nonetheless depicted in this movie with a sense of how serious the moment is. The trainer consults a Catholic priest prior to the death who tells him that euthanasia is a mortal sin. It is understood that the character has broken the law and society’s moral strictures. The movie was nonetheless lionized by Hollywood, winning four Academy Awards including best picture, director, actress in a leading role and supporting actor. Mr. Eastwood distanced himself from the scene in which the girl is killed, in an attempt to dampen the controversy. Yet, critics such as Roger Ebert declared the film “a masterpiece, pure and simple.”

In other words, in 2004, when a movie character conveyed mercy killing, Americans took note. Fast forward to 2011 and mercy killing is now slipped into an otherwise captivating, nail-biting adventure movie. Hardly anyone notices the cultural watershed.

In Sanctum 3D, Executive Producer James Cameron provides a stunning display of the thrill and beauty of cave exploration in the South Pacific. The movie is well worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography. The group of explorers in the film, led by master cave-diver Frank McGuire, run into trouble when a storm breaks out. They are trapped in a cave system with no way out except to venture where no man has gone before: they must find an escape from the labyrinth cave system into the ocean. As they struggle to survive in tense and gripping scenes, in four shocking instances, the characters assume the ultimate control over human life.

The movie is loosely based on the real-life story of Andrew Wright and his team of 14 cave divers who were trapped in a cave in Australia and all found a way out. However, in the film, the gruff master cave diver is celebrated as being able to make decisions over life and death that are essential to survival. In one instance, he kills his companion when she runs out of air and is in a panic--because it was a matter of choosing either her life or his. He also drowns a man whose bones are broken. Whatever happened to the hero who sacrifices his life for others or who puts the wounded on his shoulders, carries them all at his own personal expense and saves the day? In today’s Hollywood, if you are inconvenient, the “hero” is the one who kills you.

Furthermore, there is a scene is which another cave diver decides he will be a burden to the others and simply kills himself. And finally, in a climactic scene, Frank’s 17-year old son, Carl, realizes that he too must imitate his father and do the ultimate “good deed”: drown the old man when he is badly injured and escape on his own. This really is a metaphor for what the film is teaching the youth: the act of killing is ultimately a young man’s sport. Rather than elders teaching the youth how heinous this is, the adults are leading the way in modeling mercy killing—and ultimately to their own demise as they will surely be ill and infirm first.

Sanctum 3D is not just another amoral Hollywood movie: It is paving new ground in the most effective manner possible. That is, a highly controversial act—euthanasia—is slipped into an adventure film—to desensitize the viewer about killing others “for their own good.” Over popcorn and pop, and amidst the thrills and chills of a magnificent cave system, one hardly notices how astonishing the scenes really are. And therein lies the greatest danger of this film: Another fundamental precept of Western civilization is being shattered, with hardly a whimper from the audience.

This reflects a hardening of attitudes. In America, euthanasia is illegal, but “physician aid-in dying” is legal in Oregon(1994) and Washington (2008). This means that if an individual administers the fatal dose to him or herself, in three US states, it is legal to commit mercy killing. In the last twenty years, there are increasing efforts to place some form of mercy killing on ballots in various US states.

We are thus gradually reversing centuries of Christian teaching. The ancient Greeks and Romans had few qualms about infanticide or assisting the terminally ill in ending their lives. Christians taught the value of each human life and the humility required in submitting one’s life to God’s providence. But, in the 21st century, as young life is cheapened due to the prevalence of abortion, so too is older or weaker life being degraded.

Men and women generally do not realize that when they seek the power over life and death—rather than leaving this in God’s hands—they will ultimately give that power to others over their own lives. That is the inevitable slippery slope. Euthanasia or some form of mercy killing does not provide self-empowerment but ultimately relinquishes one’s life to another human who will decide—as we are too old or too weak to protest—when we die.

There is nothing merciful about mercy killing: it is just another glorified way for the young and strong to discard those who are inconvenient. America is on the path to a war of all against all, as parents devour their children before they are born and children devour their parents as they are dying.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal. She can be reached at gvuoto@edmundburkeinstitute.org