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Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules” Essay


“The Cider House Rules” is a film adaptation of John Irving’s book that has a matching title. The film revolves around the life of an orphan named Homer Wells and the activities that transpire in the orphanage that is run by Dr. Wilbur Larch. The film’s story is centred on the ethical dilemmas that transpire when Dr. Larch introduces Homer to his obstetrics practice where he specializes in abortions. Eventually, Homer decides to leave the orphanage in search of other interests but he is forced to come back after the death of Dr. Larch. Unlike most films, “The Cider House Rules” presents its audiences with a wide array of ethical topics and their effects on the society. The American culture is mostly libertine in nature but this aspect is not adequately reflected in films and other aspects of popular culture.

In this regard, James Bowman poses the question about how bioethics is manifested in a culturally pluralistic society (Bowman 664). Bowman notes that ‘principlism’ is the main idea in modern bioethics. On the other hand, Harold Braswell proposes the re-examination of bioethics by putting them in the context of a modern society. The two authors have different viewpoints about the nature of bioethics in the modern society. In the movie “The Cider House Rules”, the filmmaker provides the audience with bioethical reflections. In this paper, I shall argue that the themes and aspects of “The Cider House Rules” can be used to propagate the concepts of bioethics as outlined in both Braswell and Bowman’s articles.

The issues of abortion, morality, rape, and human body are adequately represented in “The Cider House Rules”. First, the movie brings into question the issues of pro-choice and pro-life when it comes to the ethics of abortion. The characters in “The Cider House Rules” pursue the issue of abortion in different ways. Dr. Larch is a self-proclaimed abortionist although he conducts most of his activities in secret. On the other hand, Homer is not schooled and educated on the morality of abortion but he does not embrace the practice. In the movie, Homer is an orphan who faces rejection twice in different foster homes. In the orphanage, Homer is popular with both the institution’s administrator and the other orphans who live in the institution.

Homer begins his informal training as an abortionist even though he has never received any secondary school education. Nevertheless, with time Homer tries to walk away from the ethical dilemmas that surround the issue of abortion when he decides to leave with Candy and Wally. Homer later discovers that he cannot escape the issues of morality and ethics when he encounters them at the orchard. Homer’s views on morality are contradicted by issues of abortion, rape, and unfaithfulness when he encounters them as a farm labourer. In the end, Homer realizes that Dr. Larch had falsified several details concerning his life thereby raising some bioethical issues.

According to Bowman, modern bioethics is based on the concept of allowing various cultural and moral orders to co-exist. Therefore, the moral values that are associated with religion and other social orders have no place in modern bioethics. Bioethics thrives most where various aspects of life such as philosophy and biomedical elements interact. Bowman’s article notes that most bioethical aspects are unacceptable to people from non-Western cultures. This article mainly “explores the capacity of Western bioethics to adapt the realities of increasingly culturally pluralistic societies such as those of North America” (Bowman 664). The author of this article notes that the current structure of bioethics comes from the exclusive manner in which the twentieth century Western society considered medicine.

In the twentieth century, medicine was understood to be an independent field that did not depend on politics, religion, morality, or economics. Bowman continues to investigate the issue of morality using various contexts including culture and individuality. Another article by Harold Braswell investigates the issue of bioethics through a ‘wide-angle lens’. According to the author, the perspective of bioethics will have transformed within the next forty years. In addition, the author questions the necessity of bioethics in the context of the modern society. One of the recurring viewpoints in this paper is that “in bioethical issues, as in any issue in our society, our division of knowledge into neat, seemingly historical disciplines imperils our ability to intervene in the problems that we confront” (Braswell 20). The views of both Braswell and Bowman are well represented through the themes in “The Cider House Rules”.

The main issue in the film is abortion, and how it affects the lives of various characters. According to Bowman, the field of bioethics comes from the biomedical autonomy of the twentieth century society. This view resonates with the actions of Dr. Larch who is both a humanitarian and an abortionist. Dr. Larch is a respected humanitarian who takes care of orphans. Nevertheless, the doctor is also a secret abortionist and an ether addict. The actions of Dr. Larch as a secret abortionist can be interpreted to signify the autonomy of medicine as outlined by Bowman. According to Bowman, a culturally plural society cannot afford to adjudge medical practices that are beneficial to other societies. In addition, Bowman notes that even though doctors operate under a morally autonomous platform, they are also required to communicate using cultural nuances. This is the case when Dr. Larch communicates with Homer. Homer and Larch do not often engage in ‘moral’ conversations concerning the morality of abortion. In addition, the film does not overstate the different cultural backgrounds between the Homer and Larch.

Abortion as a cultural issue also features in the rural society where Candy and Wally come from. Although, Homer is not comfortable with the concept of abortion, he does not judge Candy and Wally and he even agrees to live with them. Homer’s subsequent relationship with Candy indicates that he has no concerns about Candy’s moral choices in his capacity as an abortionist. It is also important to note that the bioethics that dominate the issue of abortion in “The Cider House Rules” predate the mass introduction of birth control pills. The rates of unwanted pregnancies were quite high before 1960 when the events of Irving’s book transpired. In the movie, the events that transpire in the end indicate that abortion is an issue that is independent from other social-cultural issues. All the characters ignore the context of this supposed ‘social ill’ and settle where ‘they are needed most’. This ending coincides with Braswell’s views about bioethics and the society. According to Braswell, the multiplicity of knowledge prevents individuals from pursuing solutions to social problems. On one occasion, Homer tries to help Rose in ‘his capacity’ as a doctor by assisting in her abortion. Homer’s actions align with Braswell’s views about bioethics. Homer is able to alienate his actions as a doctor from his views about Rose’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion.

The issue of morality is addressed in great detail in the movie “The Cider House Rules”. For instance, almost all the leading characters traverse morality issues in a cultural or ethical capacity. In the first instance, Dr. Larch is unaware of the moral issues when he takes Homer as an apprentice in his obstetrics practice. Homer does not have the necessary education to qualify him as a doctor but this fact does not deter Larch from introducing him to a morally ambiguous practice. Dr. Larch is also aware of the moral dilemma surrounding both his medical practice and his drug addiction but this does not stop him from going about his business. Bowman’s article refers to ‘locus of control’ where an individual can make the connection between his/her actions with his/her fate. However, Larch does not appear to be under the control of Bowman’s locus. Instead, Larch’s actions are aimed at solving immediate problems. Larch’s condition is also different from Bowman’s assertions because when he is faced with moral complexity he does not turn to “alternative values, beliefs, perceptions, and social structures” (Bowman 668).

Consequently, Larch’s actions are only meant to serve his immediate needs such as his addiction to ether. On the other hand, Braswell has a better insight into the bioethics that can explain Larch’s actions. According to Braswell, “the problem is in the way we have framed our approaches…we have obsessed with questions of abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research…but the framing of these issues in bioethical discourse can obscure the forces that create these problems” (Braswell 20). Larch and other characters in “The Cider House Rules” resonate with Braswell’s views about ethics. For instance, Homer is ready to assist Rose to procure an abortion because he is aware of the ‘forces’ that created her problem. Furthermore, Rose’s father pleads with the people who witness Rose stabbing him to cover up the incident and say that it is a suicide because he understands the actions of his daughter.

Another issue that comes out strongly in “The Cider House Rules” is rape. Rose is a victim of rape but her situation is complicated by the fact that her father is the culprit. Furthermore, Rose becomes pregnant as a result of the ordeal. Rose’s situation is similar to Bowman’s views that social science can be used as a tool of empathy. Consequently, Homer, Arthur, and other residents in the orchard easily understand Rose’s actions when she stabs her father. Under normal circumstances, rose would be vilified for stabbing her father but social science works in her favour.

In “The Cider House Rules”, the concept of bioethics is manifested in various ways. The assertions of both Bowman and Braswell’s articles are also adequately reflected in the actions and behaviours of the characters in the film. The issue of abortion is addressed in respect to the needs of the time. Nevertheless, abortion is a leading influencer of morality in the movie. It is important to consider both context and social science when considering the issue of bioethics in the modern society.

Works Cited

Bowman, Kerry. “What are the limits of bioethics in a culturally pluralistic society?.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 32.4 (2004): 664-669. Print.

Braswell, Harold. “In Search of a Wide-Angle Lens.” The Hastings Center Report 2.14 (2011): 19-21. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, May 15). Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules”. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/bioethics-in-the-film-the-cider-house-rules/

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"Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules”." IvyPanda, 15 May 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/bioethics-in-the-film-the-cider-house-rules/.

1. IvyPanda. "Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules”." May 15, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/bioethics-in-the-film-the-cider-house-rules/.


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IvyPanda. "Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules”." May 15, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/bioethics-in-the-film-the-cider-house-rules/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules”." May 15, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/bioethics-in-the-film-the-cider-house-rules/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Bioethics in the Film “The Cider House Rules”'. 15 May.

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