Death With Dignity: How to Die in Oregon (2011; now on DVD)
Who should decide how one dies? Should lawmakers, doctors, and corporations choose, even if their choices would be anathema to the person for whom they are choosing? Does it make sense to force a terminally ill person to suffer three months, six months, or more of savage pain, or would allowing that person the chance to end life before it becomes unbearable be more humane? These issues are addressed in How to Die in Oregon, a documentary by Peter D. Richardson that focuses on the lives and deaths of people who considered Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.
The film opens with a man surrounded by his family and those there to assist him, who is about to ingest the contents of 100 Seconal capsules. Because he has made his choice and is in relatively good spirits, this is not as difficult to watch as one might imagine. The Seconal is dissolved in water, he drinks it, and soon he is asleep (entering a comatose state that will end in his death).
How to Die in Oregon profiles Nancy Niedzielski who successfully campaigned for the passage of the Washington Death with Dignity Act in 2008, after promising her dying husband that she would work on its legalization. When he received his prognosis, he wanted to move to Oregon but was told he would not live long enough to meet the residency requirement.
Not everyone who chooses the option to die with dignity lives long enough to do it, as was the case with Ray Carnay who recorded his own eulogy, but died a few weeks later. (Choosing Death with Dignity is not the same as choosing a death date. Patients are prescribed the medications to end their lives, which they purchase and then put away until the time is right for them.) And not everyone who is offered the option welcomes the offer—Randy Stroup was diagnosed with prostate cancer and learned that the Oregon health plan would not cover his treatment because he wasn’t expected to live five years, but it “offered comfort and palliative care options, which included physician aid-in-dying.” Stroup was outraged that the state was choosing for him to die untreated, and—after his case was publicized—the state reversed the decision. He died after four chemotherapy treatments.
Central to How to Die in Oregon is Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old woman who suffered from liver cancer. She chose Death with Dignity, but when she outlived her doctor’s prognosis and felt healthy, she vacillated. The documentary follows her progress, introduces her doctor, family, and friends, and includes Curtis’ thoughts over the months until her death. When her health begins to decline, it declines quickly, and viewers will be distressed at her suffering and death because they have gotten a chance to know her.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Festival, How to Die in Oregon is a neutral exploration of the impact Death with Dignity laws have upon patients and their families. It is affective and viewers should expect tears. How to Die in Oregon will be released by Docurama Films on DVD February 14, 2012.