April 2005 – Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, recent winner of an Oscar for best picture, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC), the historic teaching tool of Christian doctrine, have one thing in common. Both ask the most profound question a human can express: “What is the chief end of man?”
However, the movie and the catechism offer vastly different answers.
The WSC says: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
The movie, set against the bizarre, but intriguing, world of professional boxing, answers the same question with a sucker-punch ending.
Here’s how Eastwood sets up movie-goers for the knockout: Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a poor but driven female boxer. She begs the grizzled old boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to make her his protégé. He refuses at first, but later reluctantly agrees.
Frankie and his sidekick, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), mold Maggie into an unbeatable competitor. Along the way, Frankie and Maggie are drawn together into a father-daughter relationship. Frankie is guilt-ridden over his estranged relationship with his natural daughter, so Maggie fills an emotional void. For Maggie, Frankie replaces her deceased father, the only redeemable character in her otherwise sorry family.
In a championship fight, Maggie sustains a spinal cord injury that leaves her a quadriplegic. Depressed and bed-ridden, she begs Frankie to kill her before the adulation of the crowd fades from her memory.
Adding to her misery, Maggie has to have a leg amputated. When she tries to kill herself by biting her tongue and bleeding to death, Frankie decides to do what is portrayed as an act of love. Late at night he quietly enters her room, explains his plan to her, kisses her face, disconnects her ventilator and shoots a large dose of adrenaline into her intravenous line.
A triumphant musical cue as he walks out of the hospital signals the viewer that Frankie has done the right thing.
“It’s a classic ‘better-dead-than-disabled’ movie,” complains Mark Johnson, director of advocacy at The Shepherd Center, a catastrophic care center in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I understand that it’s just a screenplay from a book, however it certainly reinforces an image of the disabled that makes suicide more easily justified,” he said.
Johnson says his concern that the movie is advocating euthanasia (so-called “mercy killing”) is reinforced by script changes in the movie that portray Maggie’s situation as even more bleak than the original short story by author F. X. Toole. “For example, in the book Maggie does not lose her leg,” he said. “In addition, in the original story, she was not alone in the hospital. There were other patients with similar injuries.”
Johnson understands the importance of such details, both personally and professionally. At age 19 as a college sophomore, he sustained a spinal injury as a result of a diving accident. For over 30 years, he has been paralized from the neck down. Minimal function of his arms and hands allows Johnson to drive a specially converted vehicle.
After rehabilitation, Johnson returned to college and earned an education degree with an emphasis in counseling. Eventually he was recruited to work in the same hospital where he had received rehab. That led to a career as a community educator and advocate for the disabled.
Johnson says the movie intentionally paints viewers into a corner by suggesting that suicide is a viable solution for someone who has been profoundly disabled. That simply doesn’t square with his experience.
“I seldom see the kind of despondency in our patients that is portrayed in the movie,” he said. “The whole culture of rehab is about getting on with your life and relearning – perhaps in a different way – to do the things you did before,” Johnson says.
“Obviously Maggie wasn’t going to box again, but what happened to redirecting that intense drive that made her come to the gym and work hard? When I was watching the movie, I wanted to say, ‘What happened to that? Why did that not get redirected?’”
The answer to Johnson’s question – as well as the movie’s answer to the WSC – likely lies in the comments of F.X. Toole. In an interview with National Public Radio December 6, 2000, concerning his own 40-year journey to becoming a published author, Toole said, “Good Lord, if you don’t chase your dreams, why live?”