Bioethics at the Movies


“Hollywood does bioethics.” It sounds like an oxymoron, two subjects that have nothing in common. “Bioethics is about real life, while Hollywood is all about entertainment – even at the expense of believability.” Hmmm . . . . Let’s look at a few recent movies that raise bioethical questions. Perhaps you’ve seen Inception (2010), one of the biggest movies of 2010. Inception revolves around “extractors” sent to break into a person’s dream to steal information, and now trying to pull off the ultimate heist: an “inception” or implanting a thought. While Inception is ultimately about the misuse of a fictional neural technology, we now have therapies to help us think better, stay awake longer, and diminish traumatic memories. Not quite dreams, but science is getting pretty close. Films like Inception remind us that we need to be thinking proactively about the ethics of technology that may be just around the corner.

The movie Splice (2009) is a sci-fi horror film about a technology that currently exists: human/animal hybrids. In the film, two scientists secretly combine animal and human DNA to create a hybrid, with the goal of “revolutionizing science and medicine.” Their creation quickly grows from an embryo to an adult that “exceeds their wildest dreams... and threatens to become their worst nightmare.” Splice highlights the current ethical questions and concerns surrounding human/animal hybrid research, including the fear that someone might try to bring one of these creatures to term. As Splice implies, science is often conducted with the best of intentions, but reminds us that good intentions do not suspend ethical judgment. We must not ignore the ethical and societal ramifications of emerging technology.

On a lighter note, two comedies this year dealt with the subject of donor insemination. The Back-Up Plan (2010) is about a woman who hasn’t found “Mr. Right,” but decides to have a baby via sperm donor before it’s too late. The Kids Are All Right (2010) features the sperm donor children of a lesbian couple who seek a relationship with their father. Unlike many horror and action films, which “play up” our fears about technologies, comedies tend to “down play” our concerns. Or, they simply gloss over the ethical issues altogether. Donor insemination has become a somewhat common occurrence, but acceptance of the practice doesn’t resolve the ethical problems. Children are being created intentionally with knowledge that they will never know one genetic parent. While we may enjoy the movie humor, we should also be aware of the lingering ethical issues surrounding the use of everyday technologies.

As Christians we know that God has given us both knowledge and wisdom. This knowledge has enabled doctors and scientists to create and explore technologies that promise to heal and help our common humanity. But we also need to be wise. As these films creatively remind us, we need to examine the ethical issues involved in the use of existing, emerging and future technologies, and wisely limit them when necessary. Silver screen plots may seem like science fiction, but the dilemmas they raise are already here.

So, pay attention to how Hollywood does bioethics. Read between the lines. Zero stars for the losers. And two thumbs up when Hollywood gets it right.



Everyday Bioethics Audio Commentary Album Art