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Center for Biology and Society Conversation Series

Bioethics Movie Night

April 4, 2019

To kick off the spring 2019 semester, the Life Science Ethics Program hosted movie night with a screening of the 1990 film Awakenings, featuring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. This year, our movie nights explore the intersection of brains, science, and the public interest. Awakenings tells the story of Dr. Malcolm Sayer’s efforts to treat catatonic individuals who survived an early twentieth century epidemic of encephalitis lethargica (causing cataonia) with L-Dopa in 1969. The remarkable initial success of the treatment unfortunately turned out to be short lived.

An interdisciplinary panel led discussion after the movie, including Dr. James Dennert (psychiatry, private practice), Professor Janet Neiswander (neuroscience, ASU), and Professor Nicole Piemonte (bioethics, Creighton University). First, each panelist shared initial thoughts on the film. Professor Neiswander focused on physician induced disorders, which are caused from treatment administered by a healthcare professional. Should Dr. Sayer have been held accountable for knowing what would happen as a result of administering L-Dopa to his patients, including debilitating muscle spasms and the eventual relapse of catatonia? And if he had known the outcome, should he still have proceeded?

Dr. Dennert raised concerns about the role of substitute decision makers in the informed consent process. In the film, Dr. Sayer relies on the consent of relatives, such as a mother or father, to approve participation of patients as test subjects.

And finally, Professor Piemonte asked the audience to consider: What types of life are worth living? And how do we treat or act toward people with conditions such as catatonia? Do we know if catatonic patients are really “in there”? Can we know? Does it impact how we treat them? What do we owe to such persons in terms of care? What do we owe to their loved ones?

Through our collective discussion and critique of the film, we clarified technical questions while crystalizing the ethical dilemmas at the center of the story. As with all of our events, participants left with more questions than answers while also gaining perspectives on how to think through such topics. All agreed that it was better to raise difficult questions than to ignore the complex ethical implications of Dr. Sayer’s actions.

More information regarding Spring events can be found here: Life Science Ethics Program. We hope you’ll join us in March for the last two events in our series on Organizing for Conservation in the Age of Extinction, part of the Center for Biology and Society’s Conversation Series.

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