Organ Donation in the Movies

Posted in Donation Myths by tebazele on September 21, 2009

The controversy about organ donation—and yes, there is controversy—has naturally been taken up by Hollywood. The movies that deal with this topic are a good place to look at how we, the public, really feel about organ donation. I can think of three movies (although there are many more) off the top of my head that both present truths and promote myths about donation, and I think it’s a good idea to look more closely at these. Recently, we’ve had Seven Pounds and coming soon is My Sister’s Keeper, based on a novel by Jodi Picoult. There’s also Return to Me, which is a little bit older.

Let’s start with the oldest—Return to Me (2000) with David Duchovny playing Bob and Minnie Driver as Grace—tells the story of a man who loses his wife in a car accident and falls in love with the women who receives his wife’s donated heart. The message is a beautiful one: Bob’s first wife lives on through Grace who is able to help Bob learn to love again. But the message has a problematic element—once Bob’s first wife’s heart has been given to Grace, who’s heart is it? Has it changed Grace at all, made her less “herself”? Has she taken on characteristics of Bob’s first wife because she now has the first wife’s heart in her body? Would Bob have fallen for Grace despite her having his first wife’s heart?

This movie addresses a social stigma associated with organ donation. Yes donation saves lives, but the actual process deals with the removal and replacement of body parts, which seems very mechanical and unemotional. I love the way another blogger, ‘Miss-Anthropy,’ describes the stigma of organ donation:

“I first heard the phrase ‘organ donor’ on television when I was quite small, perhaps four. I remember the conversation when I questioned my mom on what it meant.
She said that it meant you said it was okay that if you died you could give parts that don’t work to people who’s parts had gone bad. Like a heart, or a liver.
This made sense to me.
‘Am I an organ donor?’ I asked my mother.
‘No,’ she said.
In the true fashion of a child, I wanted to know ‘why not?’
She said ‘because I could not bear for them to take parts of you away.’”

I love that last line quote said by this blogger’s mother: “I could not bear for them to take parts of you away.” This mother thinks of her daughter’s organs as an essential part of who her daughter is, which is the question asked in Return to Me. Does Return to Me present a fallacious view on organ donation (the view that donating organs removes pieces of who you are and that receiving them makes you less yourself) or does it grant a certain beauty to the mechanical process of replacing of body parts? For me it does the latter. I love the idea that the donor can live on through another person who is more complete (health-wise at least) because of the donor’s generosity.

Let’s look at another movie—Seven Pounds (2009) with Will Smith. In this movie, Will Smith plays the character of Ben, an IRS agent who is trying desperately to make up for a terrible mistake in his past. I’m afraid I have to give away the end, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and go watch the movie! In the end, Ben kills himself in order to donate his organs to people who need them, and he spends the entire movie researching the people who he wants to receive his organs.

Honestly, the concept behind this movie bothered me. I can see the logic and life-saving miracle of transplanting the perfectly good organs of someone who has died in an accident. But I dislike Ben’s desire to kill himself; even if he is saving others’ lives, he’s taking his own. And he isn’t “making up” for the people he killed in the car accident he caused.

This movie presents a positive view of organ donors as givers of life. The title plays on this: 
Seven Pounds—the average weight of a newborn baby.  I like this view: organ donors truly do save lives in a beautiful, unselfish way. Ben’s only mistake (and the myth that is promoted in this movie) is thinking that saving other’s lives by taking his own life is OK. But the truth about organ donation that the movie presents (and the reason I’d recommend the movie) comes across in the joy the donor recipients express. They are all so happy and so grateful to Ben for giving them new life. The last scene in the movie is a beautiful one.

The third and last movie I want to look at briefly is one that is based on an incredible novel by Jodi Picoult. My Sister’s Keeper (2009) deals with living organ donation. The younger sister, Anna, was born to save her sister Kate’s life. Kate has acute promyeolytic leukaemia, a rare type of cancer, and needs Anna to donate various parts of her body in order to keep her healthy. As a teenager, Anna rebells. She decides to sue her parents for the rights to her body. She simply doesn’t want to donate anything more to her sister.

This book/movie deals with the question of consent. Living organ donors must be willing to literally give pieces of themselves to save those they love, and this kind of sacrifice, as Anna shows, is not easy to make. There simply aren’t enough people out there willing to be organ donors, even if it means saving another’s life. That’s why so many people (somewhere around 7,000) die each year waiting for a transplant that never occurs.

Movies like these show us our own perceptions of organ donation. They make us aware of what it is and how it works, and I hope, also give us the desire to be unselfish with what we have been given and ask us to place that tiny ‘Y’ next to the question on our drivers licenses—‘Donor?’


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