I have long heard the 1997 film Gattaca hailed as a pro-life movie. I decided to check it out for myself and see how it spoke to me as a Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) advocate. I found that the film, while a bit gimmicky, embodies the CLE in a way many other stories do not. Gattaca advocates for the inherent dignity of each person, looking at their humanity rather than their predisposition in life.
Gattaca takes place in the not-too-distant future. In this world, many children are what we might call today “designer babies,” or children whose parents have picked out their genetic sequencing. In the Gattaca universe, these people are called “valid” and considered superior in every way to “invalids” or “degenerates,” negative terms used for those who were conceived naturally. The protagonist, Vincent, is an invalid, whose parents were told at birth he had a 99% chance of having a heart defect and would probably die around 30. Determined to prove everyone wrong, Vincent works and studies as hard as he can to achieve his dream of going into space. He is especially determined to prove he is just as good as his valid younger brother Anton, who was obviously favored by their parents.
Vincent will do just about anything to achieve his dream of going into space and proving that he is not inferior, so he takes on a new identity. A man named Jerome was a swimming star who got into an accident and is now in a wheelchair. Jerome needs money, so he arranges a deal with Vincent: he will provide Vincent with his genetic material if Vincent supports him. Vincent is thrilled at this prospect, and through his borrowed genetic material alone, is hired at Gattaca, the premier space industry. Vincent, going by the name Jerome, excels at Gattaca and is selected to go on a space mission.
A week before Vincent is supposed to be launched into space, there is a murder at Gattaca. The building is swept for genetic material to make sure there were no intruders, and much to everyone’s surprise, an eyelash of an invalid named Vincent is found. No one recognizes Vincent as the invalid, and tests keep occurring until it is determined that someone else committed the murder. It turns out, however, that Vincent’s brother is one of the detectives on the case and recognized him from the very beginning. He warns Vincent that he is committing fraud, but Vincent doesn’t want his help. He eventually decides to leave Vincent alone and allow him to go into space.
Gattaca very clearly exposes the problem of turning children into commodities. Technology has advanced far enough since the movie came out that some of what Gattaca feared is coming true. Although we cannot control all the various aspects that the geneticists can in the movie, “designer children” are starting to become a reality.
A more immediate problem Gattaca points out is the “othering” of groups of people, or treating anyone as a second-class citizen. Vincent was dehumanized again and again for being an invalid until he was so fed up with his lot in life that he literally changed his identity. His brother was also dehumanized, being set up in life to be the “perfect” sibling. Jerome was similarly dehumanized; his worth was so tied to his “perfection” that he believed his life was over when he got into the accident.
The ending of Gattaca is wonderful for Vincent, who gets to fulfill his dream of going into space. He proves that he can achieve anything he wants to despite his birth status. This is a message full of promise and hope. However, a darker turn takes place on earth. Jerome decides that he is the second-best version of himself, and this dissatisfies him. Clutching a silver medal he won once in a swimming competition, he commits suicide while Vincent is going up into space. What Jerome fails to realize is that, although Vincent is using his identity, he is not the same as himself. Jerome is a unique individual with his own personhood and dignity. He also could achieve great things while having a disability. Jerome’s tragedy really got me thinking about our individual humanity and disability in general. Gattaca served as a reminder to me that, as a Consistent Life Ethic supporter, I need to encourage others to see the humanity in everyone, sometimes including themselves. Our ability or how we came into the world doesn’t define our humanity.