Bioethics on film
For any clinical or non-clinical department, we can offer a screening and panel discussion on any of the films listed here. An email discussion of the issues raised in these films can also be coordinated for small groups who view these after hours at home.
Listed in alphabetical order, this list of films is the Program Director's picks. This list will be revised and expanded periodically
A Place for Annie (1994)
Sissy Spacek stars in this story about a nurse who cares for a child with pediatric AIDS. A good primer in pediatric ethics and nursing ethics.
A Private Matter (1992)
True story about the former host of Romper Room, who discovers that her fifth baby will be born with severe limb deformities, caused by the drug thalidomide. Story about untested drugs in pregnant populations - and reproductive rights. Another Sissy Spacek film.
After Amy (2001)
Excellent and realistic film about the not-so-distant future of the first baby cloned for an infertile couple, and the media frenzy that targets the researchers/physicians, and parents involved.
And the Band Played On (1993)
Film version of Randy Shilts' powerful best seller on the early days, and terrible politics, of AIDS, and the early labeling of the disease, which was originally and inaccurately labeled: "gay related immune deficiency" or GRID. An accurate and disturbing portrayal of how decisions about public health are made, and where funding is distributed. Accurate depiction of research ethics violations concerning the discovery of the HIV virus.
Based on the book by Oliver Sacks, a film about the use of L-Dopa in early clinical trials with neurology patients. Raises questions about neuroethics and clinical research.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Film version of the bestselling autobiography by Ron Kovik. Powerful performance by Tom Cruise about a wounded Vietnam veteran, and his struggle to cope with his spinal cord injuries, and sexuality in the face of disability. Particularly strong teaching aid for VA staff. Raises disturbing issues about appropriate healthcare resources for veterans.
Based on the book by Daniel Keyes (an expanded version of the short story, Flowers for Algernon), this classic tale explores human subject exploitation in a research project involving the mentally disabled. Powerful performance by Cliff Robertson.
Children of a Lesser God (1986)
A classic film about deafness, autonomy, and the distinct culture of the deaf. Powerful performances by William Hurt and Marlee Matlin.
Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story (1995)
Portrayal of the life and times of Margaret Sanger, and her struggle for birth control rights. Raises still-controversial issues about reproductive rights and autonomy. Ideal for feminist ethics/medical sociology.
Clean and Sober (1988)
Realistic and gritty portrayal of addiction and rehab, social supports, and autonomy.
Coming Home (1978)
Another classic about one veteran's ability to cope with his paraplegic state, and another's inability to cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Critical Care (1997)
A satire and commentary about U.S. healthcare, insurance and organizational ethics.
Do You Remember Love? (1985)
A film that follows the journey of a university professor, played by Joanne Woodward, who develops Alzheimer's disease.
Dying Young (1991)
A film about nursing ethics and coping with advanced cancer.
Elephant Man (1980)
Based on the tale of the horribly disfigured John Merrick, who lived in the Victorian age, this is a classic film about disability, autonomy, the boundaries of the physician-patient relationship, and when exploitation and beneficence blur. Powerful performances by Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt.
Erin Brokovich (1999)
A film concerning the ethics of public health safety and environmental health risks.
A film about the downside of genetic screening and prenatal diagnosis, in a futuristic world where there is no privacy, and everyone's genetic "resume" is exposed and "outed". A strong argument for the existence of HIPAA.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Film about the therapist-patient relationship, boundaries, and the gifted young man coping with child abuse survival. Excellent teaching aid for Social Work or Psychiatry.
Based on the true story of a New York physician, Harold Lear, who struggles with his own advanced heart disease. Some disturbing scenes about the madness of institutionalized healthcare, code mismanagement, hospital dysfunction, and on-call incompetence.
If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
A film chronicling the evolution of abortion rights, with some extremely disturbing content for either side of the debate. Depicted in the format of four short films, set in different time frames from the 1940s through 1990s.
Concerning Iris Murdoch, her caregiving husband, and her Alzheimer's disease.
Kids Like These (1987)
Tyne Daly stars in this drama about a couple over 40 coping with the surprise of having a Down Syndrome child. Triggers issues about prenatal testing, genetic counseling, and social myths surrounding Down Syndrome.
A film about delusional disorders, and the psychiatrist-patient relationship.
Lorenzo's Oil (1992)
Powerful film about the Odone family and their plight in finding an experimental therapy for their son, who suffers from the rare, sex-linked genetic disease adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). Layers of ethical issues to untangle, including issues regarding genetic carrier "guilt", parenting sick children, the politics of nonprofit organizations, and the role of family members as clinical co-investigators. Visit, too: www.myelin.org for more information about this unusual family and Lorenzo's disease. Especially good film for pediatric ethics.
Losing Isaiah (1999)
A pediatrics ethics drama about the best interests of a child who is born to a crack-addicted mother. The politics, and the ethics of "bests interests" issues.
Marvin's Room (1996)
A powerful film about a dysfunctional family facing caregiving, advanced cancer and bone marrow donation simultaneously -- but not all in the same family members.
Miss Evers' Boys (1997)
Disturbing portrayal of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
My Left Foot (1989)
A film about Christy Brown's struggle and triumphs in living with cerebral palsy. Disability rights, and autonomy issues shine.
My Life (1993)
A film about coping with the end-of-life and achieving closure.
The story of a family dealing with sexual reassignment: Dad becoming a woman. Raises issues of personhood, autonomy and cultural stigma.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Classic study of the mental health institutions of yesteryear. Based on the book by Ken Kesey. Oscar-winning film of 1975. [Note: for a look a woman's story of mental health "incarceration", see Frances (1982), the story of Frances Farmer.)
Ordinary People (1980)
Classic study of grief and bereavement in an "ordinary" family, and issues of self-harm in adolescent psychiatry. Directed by Robert Redford.
Passion Fish (1992)
Another excellent film about spinal cord injury, with additional layers of addiction and depression in women, and nursing ethics.
Patch Adams (1998)
Robin Williams stars in the true story of Hunter 'Patch' Adams, apparently criticized in his official medical school record for "excessive happiness." Tale of virtue ethics, the doctor-patient relationship, the doctor as patient, and physician roles and boundaries.
A film that raises disturbing socio-ethical issues about AIDS, stigma and discrimination. Also about coping with HIV/AIDS, family support and closure.
Rain Man (1988)
Classic character study of autism, and issues of autonomy and competency. Brilliant performance by Dustin Hoffman.
Regarding Henry (1991)
A film about brain injury, recovery and the critical relationship between a patient and his occupational therapist.
Roe vs. Wade (1989)
The depiction of the classic case that continues to divide the country.
Something the Lord Made (2004)
True story about research ethics and racial segregation in medicine at Johns Hopkins. An ambitious white surgeon hires a gifted black lab technician (trained as a carpenter) to work with him on pioneering clinical research in heart surgery. Together they break racial barriers, as the master/slave relationship transforms into true clinical collaboration and peer respect.
Steel Magnolias (1989)
Although on the lighter side, this classic "chick flick" does a nice job with type 1 diabetes management, organ donation, diabetes complications in pregnancy, withdrawal of treatment, and grief. Powerful performances by Sally Field and Julia Roberts.
The Doctor (1991)
Excellent film about a rather cold and pompous heart surgeon, played by William Hurt, coping with throat cancer, and warming to the realization that patients are people who deserve sensitivity and respect.
The Handmaid's Tale (1990)
Based on the chilling and eerie novel by Margaret Atwood, a disturbing drama about a futuristic American society where government control over female fertility and reproduction is absolute. Excellent film for feminist bioethics seminars.
The Hospital (1971)
A film that explores the cynical side of hospital/organizational ethics. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, and a strong performance by George C. Scott.
The Insider (1999)
A film about the ethics of public health versus corporate greed. A Big Tobacco "insider" suffers from moral distress over his participation in withholding critical information about tobacco health risks. This film explores the consequences of reporting ethical misconduct.
The Ryan White Story (1989)
The story of Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from factor VIII. Raises issues about public health ethics and pediatric ethics, as well as coping with end-stage illness.
The Verdict (1982)
A classic performance by Paul Newman, as the plaintiff's lawyer in a heated malpractice case. A film about medical error, the politics of cover-up, moral and ethical consequences, and nursing ethics.
Tuesdays with Morrie (1999)
Based on the best-selling book, an Oprah Winfrey production about end-of-life and closure for a professor diagnosed with ALS.
When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)
Compelling study of female alcoholism, rehab, co-dependency, and the impact of addiction - and sobriety - on family members. A good look at social supports, addiction and autonomy.
Whose Life Is it Anyway? (1981)
Classic film, based on the Broadway hit about disability (spinal cord injury), the right to die, and the doctor-patient relationship. Incredible performances by Richard Dreyfuss and John Cassavetes.
A devastating performance by Emma Thompson (who co-wrote this screenplay) as a patient with end-stage ovarian cancer. A film about clinical trials in oncology, doctor-patient relationships, and in particular, nursing ethics. Highly recommended!
Using Star Trek as a Bioethics Teaching Aid
Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek television series envisioned a moral and ethical future. As a result, moral and ethical dilemmas are nicely teased out in several Star Trek episodes. Below are our Program Director’s picks of noteworthy episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which particularly touch on bioethics issues. Episodes are widely available now on DVD. They are listed in alphabetical order.
- Darmok. Episode 102 (1991). A brilliant episode about how cultural barriers prevent effective communication.
- Ethics. Episode 116 (1992). Cultural divides in medicine, beneficence, and research ethics.
- Half a Life. Episode 96 (1991). About distributive justice and an unusual way to prevent aging.
- I, Borg. Episode 123 (1992). Another classic about autonomy, with some shades of research ethics mixed in.
- Justice. Episode 8 (1987). About the divide between what’s legal and what’s ethical. When laws are wrong.
- Symbiosis. Episode 22 (1988). Concerning the ethics of addiction and treatment.
- The First Duty. Episode 119 (1992). About professional ethics.
- The Host. Episode 97 (1991). About the meaning of personhood and moral limits of what we accept as personhood.
- The Offspring. Episode 64 (1990). Reproductive ethics and personhood.
- The Outcast. Episode 117 (1992). Societal ethics and values.
- Unnatural Selection. Episode 33 (1989). About the consequences of genetic engineering.