In 1994, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to legalize physician aid-in-dying. At the time, only two countries (Switzerland and the Netherlands) permitted the practice, but more than 500 Oregonians have since ended their life using the law.
The intimate Sundance Award-winning documentary HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is a powerful, compassionate exploration of Oregon's historic and controversial Death with Dignity Act, which legalizes physician aid-in-dying for some terminally ill patients. The film tells the stories of people who died under the act, and follows the crusade of one woman who honors her husband by fighting for similar choices in the state of Washington.
At the heart of HOW TO DIE IN OREGON are the patients, families and friends who grapple with the state's legal option of physician aid-in-dying. Among the stories the film tells is that of Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old wife and mother who suffers heroically through a roller coaster of emotions and on-again, off-again symptoms stemming from cancer of the liver, symptoms as debilitating as they are humiliating. After initial surgery seems successful, the cancer returns, prompting Curtis to legally obtain the lethal barbiturates to hold "in reserve" as a final option. "It's very comforting to know they are here," she says. "It's my choice when to take them and whether to take them."
Given six months to live, Curtis chooses a date when she will end her life, in the meantime trying to enjoy the remaining time to the fullest. But she abandons that plan when she passes the deadline and starts feeling - to her surprise and confusion - much more like her old self. Daring to believe she might live another 20 years after all, Curtis begins to wonder if she gave her jewelry to her daughter, Jill, too soon.
The film features frank interviews with Curtis and husband Stan, son Thomas "T" and daughter Jill, as well as her surgical oncologist, Dr. Katherine Morris. The camera also goes behind closed doors to capture candid conversations between Curtis and her trusted inner circle. Dr. Morris explains that she struggled with her own beliefs when it came to prescribing medication that would ultimately end the life of Curtis, who is a friend as well as a patient. She says she was "shocked" by the contrast between "thinking about it in the intellectual realm of ‘This is a law that supports my values,' versus, ‘I'm actually going to take a pen and write a prescription for something that will end someone's life.' "
In addition, the documentary profiles Randy Stroup, a 53-year-old uninsured Oregonian with prostate cancer, who is outraged when he is denied health care by the state and offered doctor-assisted suicide instead. Ultimately, the state reverses its position when Stroup goes public with his story, but the chemotherapy treatment does not save his life. Also spotlighted is former TV broadcaster Ray Carnay, 84, whose magnificent baritone belies his throat cancer as he records a eulogy for his impending funeral.
HOW TO DIE IN OREGON explores the complexities of the aid-in-dying debate, interviewing doctors on both sides of the issue, as well as activists, patients' families and opinion-makers such as journalist and author Derek Humphry, who wrote the bestselling suicide handbook "Final Exit" and founded the Hemlock Society USA, which aims to decriminalize voluntary euthanasia nationwide. The film also travels to Washington state, where Seattle activist Nancy Niedzielski campaigns for that state's Death with Dignity Act following her husband's slow and painful death from brain cancer. Washington voters passed the law in 2008.
HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is Portland, Ore. filmmaker Peter Richardson's second feature documentary. He also directed, produced, edited and co-photographed "Clear Cut: The Story Of Philomath, Oregon," his debut feature, which premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
HOW TO DIE IN OREGON was directed, produced and photographed by Peter D. Richardson; executive producer, Melody Korenbrot; music, Max Richter; editors, Greg Snider and Peter D. Richardson. For HBO: consulting editor, Geof Bartz, A.C.E.; supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.