Directed by: Peter Richardson
V.O.D. Service Used: HBO On-Demand
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Passed in 1994 by the state of Oregon, the Death with Dignity Act made physician-assisted suicide legal for the first time in the history of the United States. Unlike the hands on approach taken by the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the process involves mixing a cocktail of certain drugs that induce a coma in the patient and soon after death. How to Die in Oregon, directed by Peter Richardson, shines light on how the Death with Dignity Act has affected families in the Oregon area. In particular it follows the story of Cody Curtis, a 50 something year old woman who is stricken with a terminal cancer that has given her six months to live. We follow her and her family as they deal with her decision to end of her life, from first meeting with the end of life counselor, to picking a date, to getting all her affairs in order. Parallel to this story, we also follow a woman whose husband was taken by a terminal illness and is on a mission to fulfill her promise to get the Death with Dignity Act passed in the state of Washington. Through interviews with patients, their families, as well as some who oppose the act, How to Die in Oregon tackles the tough issue of physician-assisted suicide head on.
To say that How to Die in Oregon will destroy you is something of an understatement. Right from the get go, Richardson uses a home video taken of an elderly man named Roger on the last day of his life, saying goodbye to his family, drinking the lethal cocktail, and slowly fading away peacefully and happily. If that isn’t a punch in the gut, I don’t know what is and when it comes to documentary openings, this was one of the best I’ve seen. It really hooks you in while at the same time makes you want to bawl your eyes out.
The Death with Dignity Act is something I was before unfamiliar with, but How to Die in Oregon does a good job bringing the issue to light by interviewing patients considering the procedure to the whole sub-plot of trying to get the same law passed in Washington State. By watching this, you begin to get an understanding of just how terrible some terminal illnesses are and just how important being able to end your own life becomes. Instead of wasting away, a person who undergoes this procedure gets to end it on their own terms and before they lose all control of their body and life. It’s actually a beautiful thing if you think about it.
Cody Curtis’ story is the true centerpiece of the whole documentary and her story is sweet and heartbreaking all in one. You really feel for her as she’s so full of life and undeserving of her fate, but you also admire her for her courage and strength as she makes the toughest decision any person can make. A controversal decision, sure, but a decision that given the same circumstance I’d make myself. Watching her slowly get worse as the doc progresses is absolutely heartbreaking and by the time her story ends (and it does end, spoiler alert I guess) it’s simultaneously a relief and absolutely heartbreaking. I rarely shed tears about anything, but How to Die in Oregon managed to drag it out of me. Were they happy or sad tears though is the question I keep asking myself.
Another powerful story tucked in here belongs to a man known as Ray Carnay. A former talk show host with a golden voice, he has been stricken with cancer with the only option is to eliminate his voice box. But his voice is his life and instead of letting that happen, he wants to die instead. Preparing for the end, he records a final goodbye to be played at his memorial service and it’s…well, sad. What the fuck else would it be? Seriously.
How to Die in Oregon is excellent as showing just how powerful the Death with Dignity Act is and how it puts the decision in the hands of the patients on when they want to leave this world, but where it falters is the fact that very little of the opposite argument is shown. There are shades of it, like a man who has cancer and isn’t covered to be helped out in any other way except physician-assisted suicide (which was alarming to say the least), and occasional protest groups but they are just sort of there. The opposite side of the coin on this debate isn’t given any time to present their case, which I found to be a shame because a good documentary about something like this should present both sides evenly.
Although clearly one-sided on the issue, How to Die in Oregon is a great documentary that sheds light on an idea that most people would probably recoil at just thinking about: ending one’s own life in the face of true suffering and pain. It’ll affect you in ways you didn’t think were possible and by the end of it, you may look upon the Death with Dignity Act in a much more understanding light.