If you'll indulge a proud husband...
The Suicide Plan -- the latest film made by my wife Miri Navasky and her longtime collaborator Karen O'Connor -- airs tonight on PBS's FRONTLINE. It's about assisted suicide, but it's not the conventional take. Miri and Karen weren't interested in examining the political debate between proponents and opponents of doctor-assisted suicide; that film had already been made, and the arguments on both sides haven't changed in years. The Suicide Plan explores what it calls the "underground world" of assisted suicide.
In states where doctor assisted suicide is illegal (every state except Oregon and Washington), doctors are reluctant to prescribe a lethal dose of meds, so people kill themselves with the help of friends, family members, and even activist organizations, The film follows both the people who choose to die and those who help them.
It's a beautiful, thought-provoking, and sometimes shocking film. If you'd like to consult a less biased source, the Denver Post calls its a "bold eye-opening film."
This film is their fourth in a series on aging and dying. (Yes, we joke about it.) The first three were Living Old, The Undertaking, which won an Emmy, and Facing Death. Whether they're examining issues related to death, or to the criminal justice system, Miri and Karen take viewers on journeys into worlds seldom depicted on film, and in these worlds, they show us people struggling to live (or die) under intense, sometimes brutal, conditions.
Even though (or because) all of us will eventually wind up in these physical and emotional places -- a nursing home, an ICU, facing a terminal illness, a funeral home, forced to decide whether to help a friend kill herself -- we don't like to think about them, much less see them. Miri and Karen urge us to take a good hard look, and we as a society should.
Like all their films, the Suicide Plan conveys people's dignity and tells their stories without judgment or sentimentality. We meet Hunt Williams, who assisted in the death of his longtime friends, John Welles, who had advanced prostate cancer. Had Welles lived in Oregon, he could've gone to a doctor to get a lethal dose of barbiturates. But because he lived in Connecticut, he relied on his friend -- and his old rifle. Says Williams:
“He seemed a little uncertain as to just how to hold the weapon. If you tried to aim the weapon toward the top of your head, the trigger guard would interfere with your chin. So we concluded that if you turned it 90 degrees, that would be the way to do it.”Welles -- described by Williams as a "bear of a man" -- had been clear about his desire not to live if he ever became totally incapacitated. Williams felt so sure he'd done the right thing he told the police about his role in the death and as a result was arrested and faced up to 10 years in prison.
We also meet Joan Butterstein, 82, of Littleton, Colorado. In this interview at PBS Newshour Miri and Karen talk about her.
All of the stories were compelling in their own way, but the one that was most emotional for us was Joan Butterstein's. She was the only person we followed as she was making these decisions, and we didn't know how her story would end. She was 82, terminally ill with lung cancer and had watched her first husband die a long, painful death. She was determined to die in the way she wanted, and the way she wanted to die was at home with her family, before she became too debilitated. She was remarried, to a devout Catholic who was opposed to assisted suicide in principle, but who was supportive of her decision.For practical guidance, Butterstein turns to Compassion & Choices, which provides Butterstein with what they call, the protocol, step-by-step instructions about how to end her life. She learns how to purchase the lethal medications online.
“I just checked off exactly what I needed, and it came in the mail. That was a big surprise. I couldn't imagine that this is available. But it is.”What comes in the mail, however, are dozens of pills, which she has to swallow in a short amount of time. Not easy even when you're not sick. To the extent that the film is pro-doctor assisted suicide, it shows that whatever the law may say, terminally kill people themselves -- that's just the reality -- and it would be far better that they do so openly, with the help of a doctor and the safest, most effective methods.
I was surprised -- and I think you will be too -- by the extensive assisting efforts of right-to-die organizations, especially Final Exit Network. Unlike Compassion & Choices, Final Exit helps not just terminally ill people to die but also people who are, by their own definition, "suffering more than they can bear." So-called "Exit Guides" stay with people as they die because Final Exit believes people shouldn't die alone.
The film offers an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look a Final Exit training session, where exit guides learn about the group's controversial death-by-helium method. People who want to die wear a plastic hood and, using a tank purchased at Party City (really), inhale helium.
Final Exit's push-the-envelope tactics trigger a national investigation -- an investigation that, believe or not, targeted...me! Well, not really, but I did get a visit from a New York City cop. Researching this film, my wife ordered a "helium hood" under my name (haha.) After the feds busted the ninety-one year old woman who sewed the hoods, the cop showed up at my apartment building to make sure I was still alive. (I was.) You can have qualms with assisted suicide and still question this use of law enforcement resources.
The Suicide Plan follows the trial of two Final Exit members who assisted in the death of a woman who claimed to be physically ill but who, it turned out, was only mentally ill. A surefire conviction, yes? Actually...just watch the film, ok?