HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies

One of our recent guest bloggers, Jennifer S. Bard, Professor of Law at Texas Tech, has contributed a chapter to a new book of interest The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies edited by Henri Colt, Silvia Quadrelli and Lester Friedman. This book is a collection of 80 short essays that describe how film and literature can be used to teach medical ethics:

Bard Film and literature have long been mined for interesting examples and case studies in order to teach biomedical ethics to students. This volume presents a collection of about 80 very brief, accessible essays written by international experts from medicine, social sciences, and the humanities, all of whom have experience using film in their teaching of medical ethics. Each essay focuses on a single scene and the ethical issues it raises, and the volume editors have provided strict guidelines for what each essay must do, while also allowing for some creative freedom. While some of the films are obvious candidates with medical themes -- "Million Dollar Baby", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- some are novel choices, such as "Pan's Labyrinth" or "As Good as it Gets". The book will contain several general introductory chapters to major sections, and a complete filmography and cross-index at the end of the book where readers can look up individual films or ethical issues.

The essay contributed by Professor Bard deals with the 1993 made-for-television movie And the Band Played On which is a  based on the 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemicby Randy Shilts. Professor Bard summarizes her essay as follows:

This essay discusses the role AIDS played in developing today’s patient information privacy laws and also highlights the importance of teaching about AIDS to a generation who cannot understand the fear and hate it engendered.  Not only does the story of the early days of AIDS in the United States serve as a warning about how easily values of justice and compassion can be put aside in the face of fear, it is also important as we begin to understand how infectious disease in general “got left out of bioethics” because, until the coming of AIDS, it was seen as no longer a threat. Margaret P. Battin, Leslie P. Francis, Jay A. Jacobson & Charles B. Smith, The Patient as Victim and Vector: Ethics and Infectious Disease, 42 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).  In chronicling the start of the last great epidemic, this movie presents an opportunity to reshape bioethics so that we are better able, not just medically, but also ethically to address the emerging, and re-emerging, infectious threats that are sure to come.

Watching events unfold, we see scenes demonstrating that, despite rising death tolls, societal, and by extension political, prejudice against homosexuals made it impossible to marshal the resources needed to study and fund the disease until it started having “innocent victims” such as babies born with HIV and hemophiliacs infected through use of clotting factor made from the blood of hundreds of donors.  It starkly presents the concept of the “innocent” versus “non-innocent” victim which so often marks the outbreak of any new disease and which, in the case of AIDS, still lingers. 

Both in recreating the history of an epidemic and in challenging what has become conventional wisdom, the movie is an essential teaching tool now that there are at least two generations of Americans with absolutely no memory of a time without AIDS.  Today, when we understand exactly how to prevent the transmission of AIDS, including how to treat these patients without personal risk to health care professionals, and when even more significantly we have drugs that can often convert it into a manageable chronic condition rather than a death sentence, it is easy to forget the initial shock and the instinct to lash out against and disassociate ourselves from the victims of a disease that came out of nowhere and killed everyone who contracted it. 

And the Band Played On brings bioethics outside of the hospital and laboratory to show how soon values such as justice, privacy and compassion can become compromised in the face of fear. 


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