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A very impressive film about assisted dying: is it time for UK law to change?

I watched a very impressive film last night called “How to die in Oregon” (tricky to get as a UK DVD, but easy to download on iTunes).  It’s a 108 minute documentary that was released in 2012.  The plot summary reads “In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalise physician-assisted suicide.  As a result, any individual whom two physicians diagnose as having less than six months to live can lawfully request a fatal dose of barbiturate to end his or her life.  Since 1994, more than 500 Oregonians have taken their mortality into their own hands.  In How to Die in Oregon, filmmaker Peter Richardson gently enters the lives of the terminally ill as they consider whether, and when, to end their lives by lethal overdose.  Richardson examines both sides of this complex, emotionally charged issue.  What emerges is a life-affirming, staggeringly powerful portrait of what it means to die with dignity.”

Well that plot summary describes the film pretty well.  The “central character” is Cody Curtis, a warm, brave woman in her 50’s facing a recurrence of untreatable liver cancer.  We follow her, her husband and her grown up son and daughter through the discussions, months of good life quality, deterioration and taking of her final overdose.  I found it heart-rending, deeply real, complex, and so courageous and loving.  What a privilege to be allowed into these profoundly personal moments.  And it’s not just a privilege, but also an education that strongly adds so much to my thoughts about this difficult issue.  And this is presumably a major motivation for both the filmmaker and the various participants including Cody … to send this information out into the world so that those of us who come afterwards have a clearer sense of what this issue, this journey can involve.  I feel moved and grateful, as no doubt do many others.  I have already read and talked a good deal about this issue of “assisted dying”, but I’m impressed with how much more information watching a film like this can provide … both with simple practical facts and also with observation of subtle nuanced relationships and emotions.

Not that this is an easy subject to discuss or watch.  Apparently when this film was shown first at the Sundance Festival, it was unusually poorly attended (even though it won an award there).  Facing issues about death isn’t easy.  For a couple of years or so now, I’ve been a member of a “Diealog” group.  Seven of us (including my wife) meet up every few months to talk about death and dying … particularly from personal points of view.  Topics can be very practical so, for example, I have now completed the relevant forms on Final Fling’s” suggestion list and put them into a Dropbox folder which our two children have a password for.  And topics can be pretty emotional too.  At our last meeting I volunteered to find out more about “assisted dying”.  I have bought copies of "Final Exit""Peaceful Pill Handbook" and the 822 page "Five Last Acts".  Watching “How to die in Oregon” is a further piece in this jigsaw of self-education.  My plan now is to let the other "Diealog” group members know about the film and propose that we set aside an evening to watch it together and use it as a springboard into a personal discussion about the issues that are raised for us after watching the film. 

Assisted dying is very much in the news.  As Derek Humphreys wrote in his early October "Assisted-Dying Blog..."Terminally ill Californians can now exercise their right to die with dignity.  On Monday, Governor Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act into law, just a few weeks after the state Assembly and Senate approved the bill in a special session.  California is the fifth U.S. state to authorize aid in dying — also known as physician-assisted suicide - and by far the biggest and most influential.  The California law is similar to the one operating in Oregon since l994.  It is what is known as a ‘prescribing law’ permitting doctors under guidelines to write a prescription for a lethal substance which the dying patient may choose to ingest at a time of their choosing."  As the "Diealog" website points out in its excellent section on "Arguments for and against assisted dying/assisted suicide" ... "The UK cross-party think-tank Demos worked with Lord Falconer over a two-year period (2010-12) through a Commission on Assisted Dying.  The Commission concluded “that the current legal status of assisted suicide is inadequate and incoherent”, and that therefore the laws on assisted dying should be changed."  And as for UK public opinion ... "Demos states that a majority of people support assisted dying in principle. British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys have not directly asked the general public about the Assisted Dying legislation: * 2010 BSA survey found that 82% of the general public agreed that a doctor should probably or definitely be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease at the patient’s request. * 2007 BSA survey found that 80% agreed that a person with a terminal and painful illness from which they will die should be allowed an assisted death."  

Paradoxically, although 80% or so of the British public seem to support a change in the law and a group of our senior doctors have described current legislation as "dangerous and cruel", our elected representatives in Parliament disagree.  In September British MP's rejected a new bill which would have brought the law in line with the Oregon approach ... just as in May Scottish MP's rejected a similar attempt to change legislation here in the North. This is a difficult & controversial area with valid arguments on both sides.  But if you, like me, think that on balance it's time the UK law changed, we can add our voice to the debate ... for example at the "Campaign for dignity in dying" , at Scotland's "My life, my death, my choiceand at "Healthcare professionals for assisted dying".


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