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Bioethics and Film: The Pathos of a Decision

by Michel Fariña, Juan Jorge

Welcome and thank you for coming to this first presentation of the Bioethics and Film Department of our ICB network. We have organized this time together to welcome a growing community of scholars and activists, artists and storytellers, filmmakers and audiences into a creative initiative for teaching and learning together. I have prepared a brief presentation of one example from our work in bioethics and film. Please share this two minute video:


We acknowledge that we come from the Americas and that most of the films you have seen in the short collage that you just viewed – and about which I will speak – are from the West. We are delighted that many of you come from South Asia and beyond, areas with rich traditions of film, dance and theater. We look forward to extending and transforming the initiatives about which I will briefly speak through your engagement. First, my brief reflections. Then we invite your active participation.

As you have seen in the short collage of films in view as you entered, bioethics can be said to have begun in and through film. Or, you might say that bioethics began in narratives, in human rights testimonies, in theater. Some see its roots in the Greek theater: with Sophocles´ Antigone and her right to mourning and burial. Alternatively, bioethics began with Mary Shelley and her fantastic creation of Frankenstein, in 1816. Or rather, bioethics was born with Fritz Jahr and his reference to Wagner’s Parsifal, when he coined the word bio-ethik in 1927. In short, bioethics began with each of these stories, with each story, film, play that led us to think about the complexity of a situation.

Cinema can broaden our horizon and help us think about the complexity of our practice. Let me share with you a brief example. I have chosen what I would argue is the most “bioethical” film, Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside).

As you know, the movie is based on a true event. It centers on Ramón Sampedro’s battle to die with dignity. But what does it mean to die with dignity? The film presents us with a conflict. A dichotomy. It shows us the universe of Ramón Sampedro as a divided universe. Following set theory, this universe is made up of two subsets, which represent the terms of the dilemma.

On the one hand, subset A, the arguments favor euthanasia or assisted suicide. On the other hand, the subset not A (-A) the arguments are against it.

In the film, the arguments in favor are presented by Ramón Sampedro himself, by his lawyer, who is carrying out the lawsuit against the medical commission or the Spanish state and the civic associations that support them.

But the film also presents the arguments against euthanasia. The word of the catholic church, for example: Sampedro receives a visit from a Catholic priest who himself suffers from hemiplegia and who tries to convince Sampedro of the value of life. The value of life despite this difficult situation. Or the arguments of his brother, and of the woman who takes care of him. They both want to save him from death.

And when the dichotomy has been situated in the movie theater. When the spectators have taken a position for or against Ramón Sampedro’s request, Alejandro Amenábar introduces his ethical-aesthetic bet.

Sampedro is in his bed (a brilliant recreation of the Spanish actor Javier Bardem). He has quadriplegia. He can’t move either his arms or his legs. With difficulty speaking, he asks his assistant to put on some music. And while the aria nessun dorma from Puccini’s opera Turandot plays, we see the following scene. Four anthological minutes in the history of cinema:


I am sure you agree that this is a really moving scene. Sampedro imagines a flight to his beloved beach. And this fantasy, this daydream poses a theoretical problem for us. Why?

Because we cannot include this scene among the arguments for, nor can we include it among the arguments against euthanasia. We cannot include Sampedro’s flight among the arguments in favor, nor can we include it among the arguments against.

And, always following the set theory (of Bertrand Russell or George Cantor), we are faced with a singularity in this situation. It has the property of questioning the universe. This singularity has the property of expanding the limits of the universe. And it requires us to think about the situation in all its complexity.

Because now we know, we discover, that with that flight, Sampedro gained new knowledge about himself. He understood that the true disability is not being confined to a bed. The real handicap is having reduced his existence to a petty argument for or against assisted suicide.

Through music, through that daydream, Sampedro accesses a new knowledge about himself. An amazing lucidity thanks to that unexpected relationship with death and with nothingness.

Thank you for you attention. Now, we turn to our conversation about film and bioethics and how to extend this work into the universities and communities where you live and work. [1]


[1This article summarizes the author’s presentation at the 14th World Conference on Bioethics, Medical Ethics and Health Law, organized by the International Chair in Bioethics, which took place in Porto, from March 7-10, 2022.



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Film:The sea inside

Original Title:Mar adentro

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Year: 2004

Country: España

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