Bioethics at the Cinema Program Shows Reel Life Can Influence Real Life

A new program in Rochester mixes movies and medicine in order to "create community dialogues" around complex biomedical ethics issues.

Sometimes a movie can change the way we see the world. For Nathaniel Newman, a movie changed the way the world saw him. That movie, "Wonder," tells the story of a boy born with craniofacial differences. It's a story Nathaniel knew long before he saw the movie or read the bestselling book that inspired it.

Born with a craniofacial difference called Treacher Collins syndrome, Nathaniel endured 53 surgeries by the time he was 11, reports ABC's "20/20." In those years he's endured many stares — and worse — from children and adults alike. But that's been changing, thanks to author R. J. Palacio's big-hearted story, which is "single-handedly making life easier for children with facial differences," Nathaniel's father, Russel, tells "20/20."

As the Newman family has discovered, fiction can often accomplish what facts alone can't, moving people toward understanding. That's one of the reasons the Mayo Clinic Biomedical Ethics Research Program and Rochester Public Library launched "Bioethics at the Cinema." The program aims "to use popular films to create community dialogues around important, often complex biomedical ethics issues," according to Mayo's Advancing the Science blog. In March, the program screened "Ex Machina," followed by a discussion on artificial intelligence. In April, it was "The Danish Girl" and a discussion on transgender health care. And in July — National Cleft & Craniofacial Awareness Month — the program will screen "Wonder." After the film, a panel that includes a genetic counselor and other professionals who work with people who have disabilities will discuss the movie.

"Through film, we hope to explore ethical concerns that might be difficult, if not impossible, to describe fully in words," Richard Sharp, Ph.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Bioethics Research Program, tells 507 Magazine. "Film is also a great way to raise awareness of these issues among younger people. Our hope is that this series will cultivate that wonder in a new generation."

The film series may even serve as a recruitment tool for a new generation of bioethicists. "Many of the bioethicists in our department were inspired to seek out careers in medical ethics by the science fiction books they read and the sci-fi movies and TV shows they watched as children," Kylie Osterhus, a research coordinator with Mayo's Biomedical Ethics Research Program, tells The Med City Beat. "Popular culture can help us look at the world in new and different ways."

And that's a wonderful thing, indeed.

You can grab your popcorn and head to the "Bioethics at the Cinema" showing of "Wonder" on Sunday, July 22, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Rochester Civic Theater Company. The event is co-sponsored by the Rochester Public Library, disABILITY MERG, and the Minnesota Children's Museum. Then pop on over and leave a comment below before using the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.