Last Friday night, the Departments of Modern Language, Philosophy and Religion, Psychology, and Sociology at Methodist University sponsored a showing of the Spanish film Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside).  The movie portrays the efforts made by Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic, to commit suicide.  The obstacles he faced were that he could not kill himself without someone providing assistance, and, since assisting in a suicide is illegal in Spain, anyone who helped him might have faced criminal sanctions.  In real life, Sampedro spent 29 years unable to move his arms and legs before finally killing himself in 1998; those who assisted were never charged with a crime.

Ramon’s spinal injury resulted from diving into shallow water at age 26.  He spent his early adulthood as a ship’s mechanic, a job that allowed him to have a peripatetic existence.  Anchored to his bed following the accident, he read widely, wrote extensively, and developed a keen imagination that allowed him to travel via mental imagery to places he would never visit in person. 

It’s not that he couldn’t visit such places; his family (his father, bother, and, especially, his sister-in-law and nephew) tried to accommodate his wishes, except the one about dying (I’m assuming here and in what follows that the movie portrays Sampedro’s life accurately).  During most of the time he was disabled, Ramon refused to use a wheelchair, thus limiting him to a single room in his brother and sister-in-law’s home.  This refusal was part of a larger rejection of the accommodations that would normally be a part of coming to terms with life as a quadriplegic.  Even after a couple decades of having his needs met by others, he found the process highly distasteful.  He couched his desire to die as a matter of dignity.  As he told Julia–the attorney who agreed to take his case and whose own degenerative disease produced a close identification with Ramon—his inability to move his hand a few centimeters so he could touch her hand amounted to such a loss of dignity that it rendered his life no longer worth having.

Though I don’t have a position as to whether assisted suicide should be prohibited and wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it may sometimes be justifiable, my belief that life is a gift from God leads me to carefully scrutinize any assertion that life isn’t worth living.  I didn’t find Ramon’s catalogue of mortifications to be a convincing argument for death.  In particular I found it hard to give much credence to his claim that his life lacked dignity.  He had forged meaningful relationships with others, his views were respected by them, he served as a mentor for his nephew, a local woman who visited after hearing a broadcast of him being interviewed professed her love for him, his writing was praised highly by Julia, and with her assistance he assembled what he had written into a book that was published.  Doesn’t such a life have worth and dignity, even if accompanied by catheterization and spoon-feeding?   

Ramon objected strongly to anyone suggesting that he reconsider his decision about dying.  When Rosa, the woman from a nearby village, stated rather timidly that she hoped she could help him find reasons to go on living, Ramon barked, “You have no right to judge me.”  Rather touchy, I thought.  The only person who ignores Ramon’s objections and tries to give him reasons to live is a quadriplegic Catholic priest who is portrayed as a reactionary buffoon.   So the movie doesn’t supply much rational discourse about suicide, assisted or not.  It does well at showing how Ramon adapted to a profound disability, but, more than this, it succeeds in showing that his humanity transcended his physical limitations.  Showing as it does the meaning to be found this one life, it makes me skeptical of claims that any life has lost meaning or dignity.