reflecting on hbo’s ‘how to die in oregon’

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Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

how to die in oregon

reflecting on hbo’s ‘how to die in oregon’

several days ago, hbo premiered the sundance festival grand jury prize-winning documentary, how to die in oregon. the film documents the journey of several people towards physician-assisted suicides in oregon, the only state—as of 2004—where it is legal.

as a fan of documentaries in general and as someone who finds this topic particularly engaging, i eagerly anticipated its premiere. while it isn’t necessarily the best documentary i’ve seen (though it’s very good), it certainly compelled me to spend plenty of time contemplating what i watched and wrestling with the issue of euthanasia more than i have in quite some time.

let me begin by offering a few very important disclaimers. first, this is more of a premeditated stream of consciousness. in other words, this is more of putting out some general thoughts that i’ve been chewing on without any of them being fully declarative (at this point). second, i have no intention of addressing the issue of legality. whether it should or should not even be legal is beyond the scope of my intentions with this particular post. finally, i’m not even interested in presenting a moral polemic where some kind of right/wrong line is drawn in the sand. one of the overwhelming feelings i had as i watched and as i’ve reflected is that those who make black/white moral declarations about this issue have probably failed to thoroughly analyze all sides of this very complex and layered issue. ok, onto some of my thoughts.

first of all, if you have any reservations about actually viewing death, this isn’t the film for you. in the opening scene, the director allows the viewers to join a man, his family and friends as he drinks the lethal dose of seconal. just moments after finishing the solution, he lays down and you actually see as he takes his haunting final breath. it’s jarring. it’s gut-wrenching. it’s deeply sad and my “presence” as a viewer seemed like some kind of violation of what seems like an intensely private moment.

the documentary moves on to profile a number of people—all of whom must be given 6 months or less to live by at least 2 physicians—who have made the decision to end their lives with a lethal dose of the aforementioned barbiturate. the people profiled have terminal illnesses ranging from cancer to als. most have pain that is chronically debilitating, but are still able to live relatively functional lives (others are bed-ridden and in the constant care of others). (when i say “relatively functional lives”, i simply mean “not unable to leave a bed”. most of them live with intense pain and suffering.)

my quick, from-the-gut reaction as i watched was that physician-assisted suicide isn’t much different than any other form of suicide: the ultimate form of self-centeredness. it allows you to escape but leaves all the people who love you to be left behind to deal with the awful and painful aftermath.


my gut reaction gave way to intense sympathy for the indescribably painful lives of these people. as most of them expressed (in more or less words), the ultimate sense of self-centeredness would be to reach a state of utter dependence on their loved ones, leaving an immense burden that most would never want to bear.

and then i’d switch back to selfishness. and then back to selflessness. and then back again. and so on and so forth.

this issue is certainly a grey. not a black or white.

the thought that never escaped me—regardless of what my gut response was—was that life is an incredibly precious thing. it almost begins to sound cliché, but then you see people deal with these excruciating circumstances surrounding the loss of life.

life is precious. and sacred. and beautiful. and something that every living thing desperately and innately clings to at all costs.

i’ve been open on this blog that i’m consistently pro-life. i use that word because i truly fall on the side of life not just with abortion, but with every “life” issue: war, death penalty, abortion, health care, gun control, etc. so i find myself at a bit of a crossroads on this issue. again, i have no declarative statements as i’m still reflecting, but regardless, the documentary simply compelled me to affirm life. that certainly doesn’t answer these murky questions, but it simply affirms the mystery and sacredness and beauty that is life.

i’ll close with a personal reflection that was the other constant thought as i watched the documentary. as many long-time blog readers know, my best friend rob died in february 2010 after living with leukemia for nearly 2 years. the last few months of rob’s life were hellish (there were plenty of hellish times, but the last few months of his life were particularly horrific). many of us watched as rob dealt with organ failure and complications from a virtually nonexistent immune system. it was often gruesome just to see, but of course, rob experienced things that made our observations seem ordinary.

the last time i visited rob (in houston where he was hospitalized), he was in extreme pain and in and out of consciousness. quite frankly, we were there because the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it through the weekend. he wasn’t able to talk much, but we were able to piecemeal together a few brief conversations. we talked a little about the razorbacks and life in general, but our last conversation was particularly poignant. when i asked rob about what the doctors had been telling him, he simply responded with, “i don’t know. i just know i wanna live.”

rob’s life was miserable. it was more or less a waiting game for death. he had no control over any aspect of his life. 24/7, people had to wait on him hand and foot. but for some reason, rob wanted to live.

rob didn’t say it directly, but rob certainly demonstrated that life is a precious, precious thing. in our darkest moments, it’s still worth pursuing and clinging to. life is the highest priority, even when death seems more reasonable.

i truly don’t know what to think about the issue presented in hbo’s how to die in oregon. i think it’s relatively clear that i have a certain bent, but in the end, the issue is incredibly complex and personal and i don’t claim to have a sense of moral “rightness”. i simply don’t know.

as i continue to think through these issues, i encourage others to do the same. many of you are right here with me in the sense that you have a genuine internal conflict. some of you read this with a definitive sense of who’s right and who’s wrong. either way, i encourage us all to continue this conversation in healthy ways that make it about people and not politics or polemics. most of all, let’s affirm life, in its beauty and preciousness and mystery.