THE WIFE and Bioethics

THE WIFE PART I:  Bioethics, Breaking Oaths, and Stockholm Syndrome

This week I saw two films that were about the theft of creative property. One of the films was THE WIFE and the other THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER. Peculiarly, in each case the stealing is linked to a profound purgatorial love for another character. This is not the way one typically thinks of plagiarism. 

THE WIFE, stars Glenn Close and Johnathan Pryce playing a long married couple, Joan and Joe Castleman. They are thrown into a circumstance that brings on a full throttle life review , the type that  people need as they move into their later years — a great adventure backward. The intimacy of those years does not wain but has an intensity that leaves the viewer waiting for the other shoe to drop.

There is a first grandchild on the way. Their twenty-something son seeks his own creative path from beneath the shadow of his famous literary giant of a father and— we think— shrinking personality of his mother. This is a story of  two writers whose lives, children and work are so immeshed that it has allowed them to sublimate the truth that they are neither one intellect nor a single spirit. 

At first, the soft beauty of a New England landscape in early winter lures us  into the family romance of the film couples’ enduring love affair. Then, the stark early winter of Stockholm, with its block architecture and grid format streets is quickly unsettling. The dialog written by Jane Anderson and based on the novel The Wife by Meg Wolitzer is delivered like bread crumbs trailing to the climax not of a melodrama but a riveting suspense.

Close’s portrayal of Joan, the wife, is magnificent in its simplicity. The actress creates a woman who  keeps her cards so near her chest  that  she seems to have forgotten they are there. But, the audience hunches forward in anticipation. Joan’s stoicism is contrasted with the eccentricities of her husband’s faded sexiness, as he pushes 80, while still trying to philander. Clearly, director Bjorn Runge’s bent toward mystery— and veteran stars capable of taking direction so well they reach beyond the stratosphere— brings this “little movie” into the arena of the grande—maybe even the grandest. 

And for Bioethicists? It’s an exploration of  the role of life review in relationships and health. The simplicity of copyright handling intellectual property dissolves into a bioethical concern momentous as the complexities of creative threads which spawn a finished art work. The film is  a teasing apart of strands. It is dizzying enough to drive one to split the baby in half to redistribute its parts. 

Just when you can barely tolerate the high pitched squill of this marriage between Joan and Joe a moment longer, the darn string ruptures. We are left wondering how and why people get themselves tangled in such clearly toxic webs.  Oddly, I found the answer to  that question while considering the film the KINDERGARTEN TEACHER.  That is Part II of this exchange — on Bioethics, Breaking Oaths and Stockholm Syndrome.  

The Wife Official Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d81IM0loH7o

Celia Jameson (2010) The “Short Step” from Love to Hypnosis: A Reconsideration of the Stockholm Syndrome, Journal for Cultural Research, 14:4, 337-355, DOI: 10.1080/14797581003765309


Bioethics and No Mas Bebes

Madrigal v. Quilligan:Forced Sterilization of Hispanic Women at LA County Hospital

Lack of appropriate informed consent is historically the most common bioethical violation in medical, research and other settings. The history of bioethics is replete with such examples.  Among those examples is the forced sterilization of Hispanic, Black and other vulnerable women. 

Given the recent events where the United States Immigration and Custom Enforcement service separated Hispanic parents from their children at the USA-Mexico border, the film, No Mas Bebes is particularly poignant. This theft of children showed complete disregard for the Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It seems appropriate to recall the depths of disregard for Hispanic women and children that has been shown at other times in recent USA history. Listening to the rationalizations of men empowered by medicine for the heinous acts describe in No Mas Bebes is chilling -- but so very familiar with events in our current times

In the 1970s, at Los Angeles-County Hospital, the University of Southern California Obstetrics and Gynecology services systematically sterilized Latina and Black women. Film director Renee Tajima-Peña and producer Virginia Espino have created the definitive documentation of major medical sterilization of those women under the guise of therapeutic privilege. The 2015 award winning film No Más Bebés  tells the story of a little-known but landmark event in reproductive justice. 

A small group of Mexican American immigrant women, on behalf of a much larger class, sued the state of California, and the US federal government after they were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center. The violations occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s where such events had become common. The filmmakers’ statement explains, “Marginalized and fearful, many of these mothers spoke no English, and charged that they had been coerced into tubal ligation.,” during the late stages of labor.

The No Más Bebés production spent five years tracking down sterilized mothers and witnesses of the bioethical violations at Los Angeles County Hospital. Those violations occurred under the direction of the University of Southern California division of Obstetrics and Gyneocology. 

Most of the women abused were reluctant at first to come forward, but ultimately agreed to tell their painful stories. Set against a debate over the impact of Latino immigration and perceived overpopulation by university physicians, and the birth of a movement for Chicana rights and reproductive choice, No Más Bebés revisits a powerful story racism and sexism that still resonates today.

The forced sterilization of Hispanic Women at USC-LA County Hospital coincided with the book the 'Population Bomb'.  The footage of several physicians involved in the 1970s lawsuit was chilling and referenced that book. In the film, shot 40 years later, some clinicians interviewed  maintained that they were "helping the Hispanic women by sterilizing them." Most of the women plaintiffs in the law suit were unaware that they had undergone tubal ligations unlit the legal challenge was mounted. These Latina mothers had only known that they were no longer able to have additional babies. Many became depressed and felt inadequate. 

The wronged Latina mothers’ cause was taken up by a then recently admitted to the California Bar, attorney Antonia Hernandez. She was armed with hospital records secretly gathered by the whistle-blowing Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld’s moral intuition was peaked by eyebrow raising events witnessed while on Obsterics & Gynecology rotation at Los Angeles County Hospital. In their landmark 1975 civil rights lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan,  the women argued that a woman’s right to bear a child, as well as not to, is guaranteed under the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade.

The Madrigal v. Quilligan case was lost by the women who had been sterilized. However, when the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study case—Pollard v. the United States—was settled in favor of the plaintiffs, the state of California immediately passed legislation upholding the doctrine of informed consent.

No Maas Bebe's http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/no-mas-bebes/ 

Stern, Alexandra, M. Sterilized in the Name of Public Health. Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California. Am J Public Health. 2005 July; 95(7): 1128–1138. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1449330/

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

The declaration of the Rights of a Childhttps://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.

Parts of this article are found in the book by Williams, S. and Mothers' Milk Bank San Jose, The Elephant in the Room: Bioethical Concerns in Human Milk Banking  available
 09 /2018.


THE SHAPE OF WATER: Bioethics, Surrealism, Personhood & Environmental Justice

January 24, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER set up is highly character driven. A mute Hispanic woman janitor, her Black woman colleague suffering a bad marriage, a gay unemployed artist, and a Sadist walk into a Cold War bunker. It could have been the beginning of a bad joke. Instead, it is the start of an amazing work of postmodern surrealist film.

 If we consider surrealism, as Andre Breton suggests, to be an attempt to reconcile the simultaneous existence of the awake and sleep states—THE SHAPE OF WATER is a poster child for that movement. The phenomenon applies to characters as well as the movie’s viewers. Visually, THE SHAPE OF WATER contrasts a hypnogogic state with harsh reality. Scenes are often in a gritty nightmarish Cold War industrial military bunker. In the bunker dangerous ‘isms’ compete for ranking—fascism, racism, sexism, and classism are all at play. A visually serene fantasy world exist beyond the bunker’s locked doors. It is a place where old Hollywood musical choreographies hold key product placement territory. Anything can happen and does. Those entitled to hatred by persecution for any number of reasons, choose love instead.

The relationships between the living beings in that outer realm defy all the conventions of the time, history, environment and evolution. There is one exception, the convention of ‘Villain’ has no wiggle room for alteration. He is just an unadulterated evil.

The theatrical ensemble is remarkable—Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Dough Jones are among them. There is not much else to say other than be prepared to watch the awards roll in.

 THE SHAPE OF WATER feels like a sequel to Del Toro’s earlier film, PAN’S LABYRINTH. But, there are differences. While the current work is a cross genre piece which traverses cultures, the earlier movie is culture locked. PAN, and the girl for whom he provided escape, lived in the confines of the rise of Francoists. The politic is physicalized by an archaic estate operated by the girl’s fascist stepfather. THE SHAPE OF WATER set realizes many different types of signifying characters from multiple cultural and economic backgrounds. The time period is the USA Cold War. In both THE SHAPE OF WATER, and PAN’S LABYRINTH, the “monsters” are supposedly human, but it is they who actually give monsters a bad name.

Why is the SHAPE OF WATER not just another “Beauty and the Beast” but worthy of bioethical consideration? This is not a medical movie though it is a scathing rebuke of the forces that thwart good science. At stake in the SHAPE OF WATER is the personhood of all the characters in our previously depicted Cold War bar joke. Dignity, a state of the healthy intelligent mind, is carried about by the body. Abuse the body, abuse the dignity. Malign the body, malign the dignity. Remove the dignity, remove the personhood. By this reasoning, restoration of dignity in large part means protection of the body from torture and other forms of abuse. That protection is requisite, though not always sufficient for the reclamation of personhood. One never knows what is most effective until one tries. It is the organized beneficence of trying to ‘do good,’ tempered by autonomy, in order to render equipoise and justice, which ought to be delivered by bioethical consideration.

This film helps explore the aforementioned cascade. In Del Toro’s hands, the ominous danger and political distrust manifest in science fiction shifts toward fantasy. The mystery, myth and truth escape of those most vulnerable to the abuse of dignity, because of their bodies, is fully manifest in The SHAPE OF WATER. The process of the film dissolves disability into strength. In the tradition of super heroes, Del Toro’s SHAPE OF WATER sheds the horn-rimmed glasses and neck ties of its characters so they leap, fly or swim into their own made magic. THE SHAPE OF WATER is technically exquisite. This film is one to watch on as large a screen as you can afford.

The Shape of Water annotation http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5580390/
Pan’s Labyrinth annotation http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0457430/