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How to die in Oregon

Festival favourite tells the stories of those choosing death with dignity

By Kevin Spurgaitis

How to Die in Oregon
Directed by Peter Richardson
Clearcut Productions

In 1994, Oregon became the first U.S. jurisdiction to legalize physician-assisted suicide, joining Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. How to Die in Oregon tells the stories of some of the more than 500 people putting into practice the state’s “Death with Dignity” law, which grants terminally ill patients — those with less than six months left to live — access to prescribed lethal barbiturates.

The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, begins with cancer patient Roger Sagner drinking the deadly cocktail surrounded by an inner circle of family and friends. His accelerated death sets a solemn, unsettling tone, which is continued throughout the movie.

Director Peter Richardson surveys a handful of other cancer-ridden people, including those willing to take life-ending drugs and the community of volunteers helping to administer the doses. The film’s emotional core, though, is provided by 54-year-old wife and mother Cody Curtis. She suffers from resurgent liver cancer despite successive operations to eliminate the disease. Outlasting her six-month prognosis, she reconsiders her decision to die, her resolve challenged by the instinct to carry on. But like her spell of good health, the feeling is terribly short-lived.

Artfully using vérité footage of Curtis’s home life, Richardson delves into this divisive issue, yielding powerful results. Less political than philosophical, as thought provoking as it is compassionate, How to Die in Oregon deals head-on with the complex, agonizing process of deciding to end one’s own life.

Sure, films about terminal illness are invariably heart wrenching. But this straightforward offering is not only a case for the right to death, it's a tribute to those forced to consider a self-administered departure, whichever way they choose to go.

A health-care practitioner herself, Curtis acknowledges the critics who say that it’s more honourable to die slowly and woefully, and the doctors who contend that physician-assisted suicide is “not the practice of real medicine at all.”

On her own deathbed, Curtis asserts — tersely and plainly — that “there’s a certain grace in accepting the inevitable” on one’s own terms, too.

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