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Navigating Assisted Suicide Options

March 30, 2017

Do you think you want the right to choose when and how it’s your time to die? 

Today, there are five states that have legal physician-assisted suicide: Oregon (the first), Washington, Vermont, Montana, and California. How to Die in Oregon, which won the Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, takes place during the interim when Oregon was the only state offering physician-assisted suicide, and Washington voters were just going to the polls to make their choice known. 

Physician-assisted suicide differs from euthanasia in that euthanasia involves the physician’s administering the legal dosage to end human life. Physician-assisted suicide, identified by a number of euphemistic synonyms (Death with Dignity, Compassion & Choices, the whilom Hemlock Society) involves a lucid and able patient self-administering a doctor-prescribed dosage. The difference hinges on who is administering the dosage.

The film presents a sort of quiet explosion of ideas for the uninformed (as I was prior to watching this film). The film is from 2011, but in spite of its being somewhat dated, it does provide keen insight into a controversial topic that continues to excite and incite legislation, as well as interest and involvement on the part of ordinary Americans;  another twenty-five states currently have pending legislation for physician-assisted suicide.

Filmmaker Peter Richardson gently enters the lives of the terminally ill as they consider whether—and when and how—to end their lives by lethal overdose.  The film deals with the patients themselves, as well as their families and friends, as they grapple with their legal, moral, and emotional options in Oregon and Washington. Through their stories, Richardson presents and examines both sides of this complex, emotionally-charged issue. 

Much of the film focuses on Cody Curtis, a woman who outlives her prognosis: at six months, she is feeling fine and has to go out and buy new jewelry as she has jumped the gun on her timeline and given all her old jewelry to her daughter already, a thread in her story that she recognizes as comic. Another patient goes to the hospital and waits too long—loses his capability to self-administer the dosage, and must succumb at the hospital’s hands and on its timeline—instead of his own.

There is some rather tough discussion about cost and preparation of the dosages which brings the end moment into clearer focus: a $1000 Nebutol cocktail, kind of “woody tasting,” according to one man as he is slipping into a coma, as opposed to the $130 Seconol dosage, which involves crushing l00 pills into 6 oz of liquid and then drinking it within 90 seconds—the coma follows usually within three minutes. The choices appear appallingly interesting—and grim.   (Seriously?!? With all of our medical “can do” these days, hasn’t someone figured out how to do this with a Snickers bar?) 

I love documentaries and keep a couple handy for when the Downtown Abbey stuff gets too “woody tasting,” if you’ll pardon the expression. This is a great DVD to watch just for the sake of becoming informed about an issue that we don’t like to think about much—but it behooves us greatly to do so.

Yukon Cornelius avatar


Paul Smethers, a former high school English teacher, is an Associate with the Adult Services Team at Main. His special interests are poetry, ghost stories, and the French Bourbon dynasty.

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