“It was easy, folks,” says cancer patient Roger Sagner as he slips into death, minutes after taking a lethal dose of medicine prescribed by his doctor. So begins “How to Die in Oregon,” a documentary by Peter Richardson about Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and the stories of the people who choose to utilize it. Intimately shot, it brings people’s stories and decisions regarding the ends of their lives out into the open, making for an emotional, harrowing and thoughtful experience.
The documentary tells many stories but spends the most time with Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old terminal cancer patient, and her family. Cody, having gone through a year of incredibly painful treatment only to find that her cancer returned and she had only months to live, decides to get the prescription for medicine that would end her life. However, she struggles with her decision when she outlives her six-month prognosis. Her emotional journey, along with the conflicting opinions of her family, provides a very nuanced exploration of what it means to choose to end one’s life.
The documentary also follows Nancy Ziedzielski, who crusades to get similar “Death with Dignity” legislation passed in the state of Washington. She acts in the name of her husband, who died in extreme pain without a choice as to when his life would end.
Her firm support for the law stands in contrast to people like Randy Stroup, a cancer patient who went to the media after his insurance company told him that they would cover the costs of the prescription that would end his life but not the costs of continued cancer treatment.
The documentary’s quiet, unassuming nature, coupled with the sadness of the stories being told, makes for an incredibly emotional viewing experience. The audience sees people in their darkest, saddest moments, struggling with the nerve-wracking choice of either pain-filled life or death. It is difficult to sit through this film, despite its unexpected moments of brightness — Cody’s defiant sense of humor, for instance.
Watching the documentary also forces viewers to question their own beliefs on whether “right to die” laws are morally just. The documentary does not favor one side of the issue; it simply tells stories. This allows the audience to decide for itself what is right. At some points of the film, such as when Nancy tearfully speaks about her husband’s painful last days, one thinks that yes, people should be able to choose when their lives end. However, when we see someone like Randy Stroup, who wants to continue to treat his illness but whose insurance would rather pay for him to die, we are forced to question the practical implications of the law.
Although it is far from an easy film to watch, “How to Die in Oregon” is a fascinating look at a controversial law and a compelling view of the emotional journeys people face in their last days. Ultimately, it is a testament to the dignity and compassion of which people are capable and to the resilience of the human spirit.