UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

Why I got baptized in a United Church at the age of 42

by Jacqueline Mercer-Livesey

"I told myself that I didn’t need to go to church to believe in God. I found peace and the Holy Spirit in the things that surrounded me. But still, there was a nagging sense of something missing."

Promotional Image


Editor/Publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Observations: The rewards of letting go

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the upcoming changes for The United Church of Canada, the magazine and in her own life.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image


June 2018

The moment the Pope asked me to pray for him

by Miriam Spies

A United Church minister on the impact of a simple gesture from a powerful man.


July 2018

Best self-care tips for caregivers

by Kate Spencer

Counsellors, teachers and ministers share what it looks like for them.


July 2018

Meet your 2018 moderator nominees

by Mike Milne

Later this month, General Council commissioners will choose the United Church’s next moderator. As of press time, 10 leadership hopefuls had been announced. We asked each of them to sum up their pitch in a tweet.


July 2018

A fond farewell to presbyteries

by Steven Chambers

They will likely be eliminated this year as the United Church restructures. Steven Chambers celebrates the end of an era.


July 2018

Instead of retirement, these two nurses are battling Vancouver's opioid crisis

by Roberta Staley

At age 71 and 65 respectively, Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles embrace their unconventional work in the Downtown Eastside.


June 2018

I hate you, Canada, for teaching people to treat me like this under your name

by Zach Running Coyote

A Cree actor says he blames our country for the racist comments recently directed at him in a McDonald's restaurant.

Promotional Image