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A Year of Assisted Death in Film

It's been quite a year for filmed discussions about assisted death. That statement itself is remarkable considering how taboo the entire subject of death is in many cultures. It's a refreshing change, and one which I, for one, applaud. Through these TV programs and documentaries it's becoming apparent that how we die matters to us and what options we have when we're facing death are important.

The documentary we mentioned most often this year was Peter Richardson's life-affirming film How to Die in Oregon. For four years, Richardson filmed the journeys of terminally-ill Oregonians who decided to request medication to hasten their deaths as allowed under the state's Death with Dignity Act and the effort to pass Washington's Death with Dignity Act in 2008.

He very distinctly decided not to make a film which looked at the political aspects of this issue; rather, he chose to focus on the personal stories behind this issue. The documentary finds its heart in the stories of two women in particular: Cody Curtis and Nancy Niedzielski. Curtis, her family, and her oncologist generously share their experience with Curtis' terminal diagnosis and decision to request the medication, and Richardson follows Niedzielski in her determination to tell her husband's story so other Washingtonians could have the option her husband wanted.

Richardson created a film which is at times difficult to watch because of its unflinching look at death and dying, but in the end, people come away feeling uplifted and perhaps even less afraid of death. The film doesn't strive to tell people how they must die, but through personal accounts shows how simply having more options for end-of-life care gives people more peace of mind in their final days. As one blogger put it, "After watching the movie, my wife and I can't understand how anyone could argue that death with dignity shouldn't be an option for everybody."

Television also took on the difficult subject of assisted death. Two programs in particular, The Dr. Oz Show and Criminal Minds which came out within weeks of each other were refreshingly direct about the issue. On his daytime talk show program, Dr. Oz facilitated a national debate about hastened death and one which sparked such intense interest that it drove more people than ever to the show's website to catch what people on both sides of the issue said.

Criminal Minds a prime-time criminal investigation drama took a subtler look at assisted death involving the main character and his ex-wife through their "Epilogue" episode. Often I cringe when I hear a prime-time show is going to involve this topic; all too often these shows find the most inflammatory fringe perspective they can, spewing misinformation along the way. Criminal Minds took a different path. The conclusion of this subplot took only five minutes of the hour-long program. There was no fanfare or over-dramatization. It was a simple, quiet scene showing the tenderness and acceptance of an intimately personal decision.

Across the pond, acclaimed fantasy novel author, Sir Terry Pratchett, re-ignited the UK's debate about assisted dying with his BBC documentary Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. In this hour-long documentary, Pratchett follows two men through their journey to hasten their deaths at the Swiss Dignitas clinic. His reason for making this documentary was very personal—Pratchett is considering dying with the help of Dignitas as well.

It's apparent throughout the show, Pratchett is conflicted about making this decision for himself. In interviews around when the documentary aired he mentioned he started the formal process to request Dignitas' assistance in dying, and he may or may not die with their help. In the short film he calmly and honestly admits he's unsure he would ultimately take the medication to hasten his death, but it's an option he wants to have.

All of these films and programs show a different perspective on hastened death. They present the complexity of different end-of-life options. But one clear message comes through in all of them: these are choices everyone should be able to make in the comfort of their own homes.


  • Posted by Beth Crowell on Saturday, December 31 at 08:44 p.m.

    Choosing to Die -- what a sensitive & inspiring presentation. As a registered Nurse & long distance health care proxy for my mother, it was too late by the time I arrived. The call for help had already been made & we did the vigil until she was finally extubated. The MD said "It won't be long now" & the RN kept asking if I wanted her to have more morphine. I said "Yes" & kept praying to God to take her. It's been 10 yrs but I still replay that scene.... how differently it could her been, how she would never have wanted her life extended by artificial means. It is all about dignity & the right to make the call.

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Monday, January 02 at 10:12 a.m.

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal story, Beth, and for your support!

    Melissa Barber
    Electronic Communications Specialist
    Death with Dignity National Center

  • Posted by Evelyn Anderson on Sunday, February 05 at 10:42 a.m.

    Awaiting Death Without Dignity after 5 days in Mayo Hospital has me wishing we were residents of Oregon. My beloved husband, a 90-year-old healthy, vibrant, handsome, bright, articulate WWII Marine veteran, stricken with a severe stroke without warning, after a perfectly normal day and evening, deserves better than what we are experiencing..."the shortcomings of our end-of-life system." I hope all the advocates of "how we die in America today," will re-examine how it can be and should be improved. The dawn of the sixth day "in this strange landscape we call end of life" was to offer at least the possibility of moving to a Hospice facility. However,
    the patient died at 3:00 a.m.

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