At 54 years old, Cody Curtis is diagnosed with liver cancer and begins an up and down battle with the disease. Some days are good, others not so, but she takes what she is given with bravery and grace. You can’t help but like her for her easy smile, her humor in the face of her illness, and how her family and doctors relate to her and she to them. The difference between Cody and others like her, is that if her situation goes beyond her own personal breaking point, she can opt to end her life legally.
Curtis lives in Oregon, which, in 1994, was the first state to legalize physician aid-in-dying. The HBO documentary, How To Die In Oregon, explores the ethical and moral ramifications of Oregon’s landmark Death With Dignity Act (only two countries, Switzerland and the Netherlands, permitted the practice prior to this), and displays with unflinching honesty the final days of those deciding to take advantage of their right to die. At the time of filming, five hundred terminally ill patients had opted to end their lives this way.
We meet Randy Stroup, a 53-year-old uninsured Oregonian with prostate cancer, who when denied health care by the state, opts for doctor-assisted suicide instead. Then there is a poignant tale of 84-year-old TV broadcaster Ray Carney, a throat-cancer victim shown recording his eulogy for the funeral he has planned for himself.
Being in control (a word used many times in this film) is extremely important to these people, and having the power to decide their own destinies is of great comfort to them. Unlike those who were cared for by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, these people may not leave the act of ending their lives to someone else. The final step, according to the law, is one they must take on their own. That’s not to say they make their decision to die lightly. They need to confer with their doctors and sign papers. Even then, the decision is not set in stone. They always have the option to back out before they drink the Seconal cocktail mixed for them by their aide. None of them does.
After Seattle activist Nancy Niedzielski’s husband dies a slow and painful death from brain cancer, she honors his last wish by traveling to Washington to campaign for that state’s Death with Dignity Act. Her story is among the most heartening ones in the film, proof of how something positive can come from the tragedy of loss.
We hear from author Derek Humphry, who wrote the bestselling “suicide handbook” Final Exit. Humphry also founded the Hemlock Society USA, an organization which calls for the decriminalization of doctor-assisted suicide nationwide.
Ultimately we are left with Curtis in her last days and final moments. Her story and pain are woven through this documentary like a bright thread through a dark tapestry, and when we reach the end with her, it is bittersweet. Despite how her illness has debilitated her physically, she seems mentally full of life, joking and joining her family in song until the drug takes her away.
The documentary will raise a lot of eyebrows; some will certainly find it disturbing and even offensive. It is not in our nature to plan our own demise. But the film raises many thought provoking arguments in favor of Oregon’s law. How To Die In Oregon is an important film and, no matter what your beliefs, one you should see.
How To Die In Oregon is Portland, Oregon filmmaker Peter Richardson’s second feature documentary. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
The film airs Thursday, May 26th at 8PM ET on HBO.