why ‘Seven Pounds’ is unethical

In my review of Seven Pounds I said this:

[W]hat Will Smith(TM) is doing, particularly in the cases of these two of the seven people he is handing a pound of his flesh — either metaphorically or literally — is wildly unethical to the point that any honest version of this movie would end with the tragic revelation of that.

And then I promised to go into more detail about what I meant, after more people have had a chance to see the film. It’s been playing for three weeks now, and it held up pretty well over the holidays, so lots of people have seen it.

Spoilers from here on.

In Seven Pounds, Will Smith plays a man who is trying to atone for having caused the deaths of seven people — including his wife — in a car accident. As part of his atonement, he is going to commit suicide, having predesignated that his eyes be donated to a blind man (played by Woody Harrelson) and his heart to a woman with heart failure (Rosario Dawson) whom he has already decided are “worthy” of receiving such gifts.

That’s pretty repulsive, the idea that anyone should be choosing who lives and who dies based on how worthy one man thinks they are, but that’s not what I was talking about. And in the comments section after my review, a few readers touched on the idea that suicide is unethical. But that’s not what I was thinking of, either. I do think suicide is pretty selfish, but I was thinking on a much larger scale, about a behavior that would impact many people — and in a bad way — far beyond the circle of the Smith character’s friends and acquaintances who would mourn his death.

I was referring, instead, to the idea that one can designate a recipient for one’s donated organs. Of course, some kinds of donation, as of a kidney or bone marrow, often relies on the donor agreeing to donate to a particular recipient, but of course that’s not possible when it comes to an organ that you can’t live without… like your heart. Unless you’re willing to die to donate it.

It’s hard to imagine any doctor agreeing to take such an organ from a living donor — that would be wildly unethical. And so in the organ-donation program as it exists today, donors could not, logistically speaking, name a recipient for their organs — being unable to anticipate a particular need by a particular person at a particular time in the (presumably) far future — even if the system weren’t also set up to get organs to the people who are most desperately sick, the people who need the organs most.

In other words, the organ-donation system assumes that donors do not believe they’re about to die.

But the moment anyone actually did what Will Smith does in the movie, the sale of organs — which is prohibited to prevent less sick but more wealthy people from jumping the queue ahead of sicker but less rich people — would become an issue. A desperate father, for instance, looking to make some money for his family might agree to commit suicide — or be pressured to do so — for a prepayment in return for designating a certain recipient of his heart, lungs, kidneys, whatever. The actions of Smith’s character would open a legal and moral can of worms that would have to result in subsequent laws against what he did, and in the meantime, would throw the whole system into chaos.

Any honest movie would have to acknowledge this. Or, even better, it would have shown us Smith’s “sacrifice” going completely to waste as doctors and lawyers refused to accede to his wishes — imagine the person higher up on the donor list needing his heart, and not getting it because he designated the less needy Rosario Dawson as the recipient. Lawsuits and heartbreak — literally — galore!

What Smith’s character does is not romantic or generous or noble. It’s dangerous, and threatens many more people than it would ostensibly help.

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