2011, Movies

How to Die in Oregon (2011, Peter Richardson)

This is not a particularly interesting film as a film, it’s a pretty typical documentary in terms of form and style. But it’s subject matter is extremely vital – looking at the lives and decisions of terminally ill people who are trying to decide whether or not to end their lives legally in Oregon. (With some qualifiers.)

The film is bookmarked by two deaths, which we would traditionally call assisted suicides. The first is one of the first 400 people to choose to die under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law, introduced in 1994. The second is a woman we follow as she struggles with terminal cancer and the decision of whether or not to end her life while she can still choose to do so.

In the middle, we meet many people.

  • We meet volunteers with Compassion & Choice who help people with the process of ending their lives. (In Oregon a doctor can prescribe you the drug to end your life but is not obligated to administer it, which sort of avoids the ethical wrinkle of doctors “killing” their patients.)
  • We meet multiple Oregonians struggling with the decision to end their lives due to their terminal illnesses.
  • We meet the founder of the Hemlock society who has advocated for assisted suicide
  • We meet a Washingtonian woman who has lost her husband and who is campaigning for a similar law in Washington.

Though the story mostly comes back to the woman with cancer who will die at the end, all these other people have compelling stories as well.

The film is clearly on the side of those who want to choose, as I was before I watched it. I strongly believe that nobody should be able to tell you whether or not your suffering needs to be endured longer. Whether it’s your government, that says it’s illegal, or whether it’s some supposed moral authority that says you should continue to suffer because they believe in things that don’t exist, I have long struggled to see why the sufferer isn’t the final authority. It’s bizarre and kind of cruel that we traditionally don’t trust people in pain to make this decision for themselves.

This film does a good job of showing why it should be up to the sufferer, not someone else. These people understand their choices and they understand, much better than some moralizing authority figure, what they are contemplating. The law in Oregon is particularly strict and safe from potential “slippery slope” abuses so this film doesn’t deal too much with the debates. (Though it briefly covers them with regard to the Washington ballot initiative.) Regardless, it’s important for anyone who thinks they know how other people should live to listen to those people, and this film lets us do that.

The music choices are a little iffy. And the film itself is nothing special, as I alluded to at the top – just a typical documentary of the era. But if you care about bodily autonomy – or, better yet, you think you know how other people should choose to live their lives – then you owe it to yourself to watch this film.


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