Part II: NORMA RAE x EUROPA '51: Bioethics, Dual Loyalties & Crystal Lee Sutton

In Norma Rae, and Europa 51 the leading women are seen in factories which are loud, mechanical, inhuman. Focus on the grinding gears seems to imitate the work of their minds. Workers visually blend with the machines. Both the lead characters interact with the roughness of the lives around them. The camera captures faces and expressions of  the destitute and poor of spirit. Director Ritt’s homage to Rossellini’s neorealism is complete. There is sickness and death; stroke, deafness, infection, suicide, murder, broken limbs. Only the women leads and their compadres, male non-lover partners, find these occurrences anathema.  

Irene Knox is an outsider looking in on a world to which she is compelled to extend compassion. Norma Rae is born from the roughest circumstances, which she struggles to change. It is through the wonders of human consciousness that Norma Rae, jumps from pure survival to a desire for enlightenment. The leap is portrayed with the delicacy of a metaphysical love affair and a Dylan Thomas poem. Remarkably, these two women with beginnings so different end up in the same place. 

Bioethical conflict arises in circumstances where there are competing goods. When good and bad are clear, that is not a conflict. The system of health care as portrayed in both films illustrate this tension. In the textile factory the doctor  is paid by the factory owners, implicitly required to maintain the status quo despite repeated instances of occupational disease and health stresses. Arguably, the doctor tries to maintain  individual factory workers incomes, for as long as those individuals can stand to work.  

In the run of the day, there is a duality of obligation to both employer and patient in the tasks of public health. When you ask a  tired, starving man if he  would rather eat or sleep, you see the  bioethical conflict occupational health, workman’s compensation, social security, and corporation doctors deal with, or ignore, daily.

Europa 51’s doctors obscure facts repeatedly. The cause of death of Irene’s son is withheld from her. When a prostitute is ill, and despised by neighbors in a slum, Irene summons a doctor. Without explanation  the doctor declares “there is nothing to be done.” Then, he abandons Irene to the task of doing that ‘nothing.’

Irene’s desire to make change for individuals around her abounds.  She stands in, as a worker on a factory shift, for a woman with several children and a date. Irene is told her behavior is dangerous to her own well being, proven by her being locked into an asylum. Norma Rae was also locked away, but in jail.  Both women did plenty of good before the jailers threw away the keys. These films make us ask,”For whom do these doctors work?”  

Medicine failed not only  the character Irene Knox but, the real Norma Rae, Crystal Lee Sutton.  Crystal matriculated at  Alamance Community College in 1988.  She finished her working career as a certified nursing assistant.  Being among the medical profession did not save her.  Crystal died  on September 11, 2009, from a usually slow growing tumor of connective tissue surrounding the brain, a meningioma. The mass escaped appropriate followup because of insurance company protocols. She died in hospice at 68 years old. When asked by a reporter, how she would like to be remembered she said, 
“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything… but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the USA and the world … (So) that my family and children, and children like mine, will have a fair share and equality."


Norma Rae (35 mm) directed by Martin Ritt, USA 20th Century Fox. 1979 (110 min)

Europa ’51 (35 mm) directed by Roberto Rossellini, Italy, I.F.E. Releasing Corporation 1952 (113 mins)


Crystal Sutton Collection http://www.crystalleesutton.com/about.html Accessed September 9, 2015

London, L. Dual loyalties and the ethical and human rights obligations of occupational health professionals. Am J Ind Med. 2005 Apr;47(4):322-32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15776476  Accessed September 18, 2015.