Sunday, August 30, 2009

This Week in Assisted Suicide.

Issues to watch this week:

--On Tuesday, September 2 the Montana Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the December 5 ruling that Montanans have a right to assisted suicide.* The December decision, Baxter v State, made Montana the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow assisted suicide. John Baxter, a terminally ill 76 year old Montana resident brought the suit to obtain rights to a lethal prescription of drugs. He won and the state appealed the decision.

One of the interesting aspects of this case is the lack of a conscience clause - allowing medical practitioners to opt-out of prescribing lethal drugs - as are included in Oregon and Washington's Death with Dignity laws, instituted by public vote.

--This week, expect to see more people asking the question that The LA Baptist Examiner has asked: Was Michael Jackson's death homicide or assisted suicide?

The question itself requires some odd definition twisting (see footnote below). Dr. Murray prescribed Propofol and other drugs to Jackson. The coctail caused the entertainer's death. What was Murray's intent? To passify a demanding public figure's request (drug prescription) before he finds another doctor willing to do so? Or kill to his patient?

It will be interesting to see if this case takes the same course as one decided last week regarding a Louisiana man, John Ahlf, who brought his depressed, chronically pained wife 130 pills and alcohol. She took the pills and died; Ahlf was sentenced to 6 months in jail.

*Assisted Suicide is the common name for what advocates call aid in dying or death with dignity (as Oregon and Washington's bills are named). They contend that assisted suicide - meaning death facilitated by another (doctor, relative, etc.) is illegal and that aid in dying or death with dignity allows a terminally ill, mentally sound patient to control the conditions of their own death by administering their own fatal medication.

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Graham Greene's Catholicism.

I've been reading The End of the Affair the past few days so when the opportunity came up to catch a Graham Greene double feature at Film Forum last night with two of my favorite religion scholars, I jumped.

Elizabeth Castelli, Chair of the Department of Religion at Barnard College, is author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. Angela Zito is professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York University and author of, Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in 18th century China. Time with them is like a seminar in how to read, that most basic human task of observing and interpreting experience, be it a film, a social situation, family relations, a book, or a favorite TV show. I'm always richer for their company and conversation.

It was Elizabeth who remarked, prior to the films, on Graham Greene's astute writing on Catholicism. Greene wrote 26 novels, many of which address religion, and a handful of which were made into movies. In The End of the Affair Sarah promises God, when a bomb falls on her lover's flat, that she will believe in God should he survive. He does and it is this promise, in the midst of her avoided, latent faith, that cuts short their affair. Years later, as they try to reconcile, she decides to become Catholic but is struck down by a sudden illness.

From the book:

...Suddenly I saw her for what she was - a piece of refuse waiting to be cleared away: if you needed a bit of hair you could take it, or trim her nails if nail trimmings had value to you. Like a saint's her bones could be divided up - if anybody required them. She was going to be burnt soon so why shouldn't everybody have what he wanted first? What a fool I had been during three years to imagine that in any way I had possessed her. We are possesed by nobody, not even ourselves.


(From a letter from Sarah to her lover, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, received after her death.) I love you but I can't see you again. I don't know how I'm going to live in this pain and longing and I'm praying to God all the time that he won't be hard on me, that he won't keep me alive. Dear Maurice, I want to have my cake and eat it like everybody else. I went to a priest two days ago before you rang me up and told him I wanted to be a Catholic. I told him about my promise and about you. I said, I'm not really maried to Henry any more. We don't sleep together - not since the first year with you. And it wasn't really a marriage, I said, you couldn't call a registry office a wedding. I asked him couldn't I be a Catholic and marry you? I knew you wouldn't mind going through a service. Every time I asked him a question I had such hope; it was like opening the shutters of a new house and looking for the view, and every window just faced a blank wall. No, no, no, he said, I couldn't marry you, I couldn't go on seeing you, not if I was going to be a Catholic. I thought, to hell with the whole lot of them and I walked out of the room where I was seeing him, and I slammed the door to show what I thought of priests. They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he's got mercy, only it's such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.

In both the films we watched last night, it is knowledge or truth - or the resolution of plot - that hinge on relics: in The Fallen Idol, it is Mrs. Baines' footprint in spilled dirt; in Brighton Rock, it is a phonograph record made by Pinky for his new bride, Rose. Both "villains," tortured by their inability to love or be loved, experience "an odd sort of mercy" that "looks like punishment."

The Fallen Idol and Brighton Rock are showing as a double feature at Film Forum through Tuesday, September 1.

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