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Watching Never Let Me Go

[Editor’s Note: The issue of human exceptionalism — what it means to be human — comes up at ENV on occasion. With this in mind, Heather Zeiger reviews Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book and movie (spoilers ahead!).]
Earlier this week I discussed the book, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. In this post, I will look at the film and focus on some particular aspects that were explicitly brought up in it.
The best part about the film was the three main actors, Carrie Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley, who performed their parts well. Also, director Mark Romanek had excellent scenery and cinematography. Admittedly, the film does not live up to the complexity and controlled narrative of the book. There is a line in the book and the film where Miss Lucy says, “You’ve been told and not told,” and when you read the book, the reader is told and not told the nature of the students at Hailsham and their fate. The film, on the other hand, gives it away from the very first lines and then spills everything in one of Miss Lucy’s lectures fairly early in the film. This brings a different dynamic to the film’s story, which seems to do a little more to address the characters’ acceptance of their fate.
The book is complex, and deals with many issues, so, understandably, the screenwriters had to pick and choose which issues to cover. I noticed that the film seemed to be focusing on the medical/scientific franchise more so than a discussion of what it means to be human, while the book seemed to do the opposite. Throughout the book, Ishiguro explores personhood, the human being, dignity, with a smaller emphasis on utilitarian medicine. However, the film seemed to emphasize the results of throwing medical ethics out the window.

In the film, when Tommy and Kathy go to meet Miss Emily and Madame, they learn the true nature of Hailsham. Miss Emily explains that they were the only ones looking at the ethics of donors, but the school ultimately failed because no one wants to go back to the days of lung cancer or breast cancer or other diseases. While this was not a major theme in Ishiguro’s book, this seemed to be the major theme to the film and one that deserves exploring.
The film opens with Kathy looking on as Tommy is going into surgery. We have just learned that the scientific revolution happened in 1952, and by 1976 life expectancy was over 100 years, so presumably Tommy is awaiting this wonderful advancement in medicine. Only at the end of the film do we realize that Tommy, who is 29 years old, is going in for his third and final donation. These bookends, seem to juxtapose the idea that life expectancy is over 100 years, but at the cost of “donors” dying before they are 30.
What is the cost of medical research driven by an “ends justify the means” ethic? At a recent bioethics conference I attended, many of the medical health professionals lamented the changing face of medicine. The priority now is to give the patient what she wants, to be an unquestioning distributor, instead of a healer. What does it mean to heal without regard to ethics? What does it mean to have medical advancements that are about alleviating suffering of any type and for whatever the cost? We see one possible world in Ishiguro’s story, where individuals, for all practical purposes are real, living, breathing human beings, but have been deemed as commodities of society. The only hint of justification for this is given in Miss Emily’s statement about going back to a time when people are dying of various cancers and diseases. How often do we hear this in the bioethics field? If a bioethicist even poses the question, “should we be doing this?” and it is a promising field of research, you are deemed as heartless for not wanting [fill-in-the-blank disease] healed. The current climate is that usually the ends will justify the means to a point; however, that point is moving.
Surely these diseases, including the specific ones mentioned by Miss Emily, lung cancer and breast cancer, are horrible. No one is arguing that researchers shouldn’t make every effort to alleviate or cure these diseases. The problem comes when the cost of curing one life involves the harm or even the taking of another. The film and the book do a good job of convincing the audience that the main characters are real persons with thoughts, lives, relationships and feelings that seem very human, but they have been defined as something instrumental. Their organs are commodities and their jobs are to care for their bodies so that they can be dismantled for the good of society.
I have met medical health professionals that are against organ donation, not because they are against people getting well, but because they believe it cannot be done without abuse and manipulation. This is especially apparent among family members and relationships. However, there are problems with the donor list as well. As much as it is regulated, there are still questions as to what is fair, and many people have different concepts on what “fair” means. I believe a quote from a 2006 New Atlantis article on commoditization of the body and organ donation states the crux of the issue best: “The technology to extend and improve the quality of their lives is available, but not the natural material on which the technology depends.” And this is the problem the film addresses, the solution being, make a clone and don’t call it a person so that it does not have all of the rights and privileges granted to people.
I don’t take a hard line against voluntary organ donation by an adult, but there is certainly something macabre and eerie when we start talking about body parts as commodities. It is like the old cartoons where two people are stranded on a deserted island and one person starts seeing the other person as a steak or some other food item. It’s sick, if you think about it. But, in a sense, isn’t dehumanizing people, even cloned people, to the point of looking at them as organ incubators equally sick? What kind of society is it when we dehumanize some to heal others?