COLUMBIA — A film that takes on the topic of assisted suicide is coming to Columbia and will be accompanied by a panel discussion surrounding medical ethics and current law.
“How to Die in Oregon,” an award-winning documentary that explores Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, will be shown at 6:45 p.m. on Monday at Ragtag Cinema. After the showing, director Peter Richardson and a guest panel will answer questions and discuss the film.
The film explores assisted suicide through several people's experiences including that of Cody Curtis, a 53-year-old wife and mother of two who struggles with the decision to take a fatal dose of medication while fighting terminal cancer, according to the film's website.
"In terms of my approach to the story, I knew that I wanted to make it as real and credible and intimate a portrait of these people's lives at the end as I possibly could," Richardson said in a video on the website. "What’s the actual, real experience of people who are considering this? And that’s a very, very complex question."
The Death with Dignity law was enacted in Oregon on Oct. 27, 1997. It allows "terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose,” according to a state government website. Washington has a similar law that took effect in March of 2009, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
Death with Dignity and Right to Die laws have been much debated in the U.S. for the past few years with the passage of assisted suicide bills in Oregon and Washington, as well as through well-known euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian’s work.
Legal battles involving the removal of life support, as in the highly publicized case of Terri Schiavo, have also played a role in the discussion.
But courts outside of Oregon and Washington, for the moment, make a great distinction between removing life support and administering a dose of lethal medication. “Courts have tried to talk in terms of affirmative acts,” said Sandra Davidson, an associate professor and adjunct associate professor of law at MU. “The next step is going beyond removing treatment, to actually facilitating death.”
Missouri has no euthanasia law but has had its share of court cases dealing with the right to die. The case Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, went to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1990 and eventually set national legal precedent.
Nancy Cruzan was 25 when she was involved in a severe car accident in 1983 in Jasper County that left her incapacitated and dependent on artificial feeding and hydration equipment, according to a UMKC law website.
Cruzan’s parents petitioned the state to have the equipment removed, which would have ended their daughter's life. State officials decided not to remove the feeding and hydration equipment, and a lawsuit ensued.
The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling that Cruzan would be kept on life support because “clear and convincing evidence” was not shown that she would have wanted to be removed from the equipment.
However, the ruling upheld the notion that a person does have the right to refuse medical treatment under due process. “Clear and convincing evidence” of the person's wishes has become the legal standard necessary for removal of life support equipment.
Opponents of Death with Dignity laws have voiced concern about how such laws would be implemented and whether the proper safeguards would be in place.
Davidson said that safeguards are crucial to ensure that a person is definitely terminally ill and is not being coerced or manipulated into a life-ending decision. The question is "whether a person is acting out of that person’s own free will."
Davidson will speak on the panel after the film along with MU professor emeritus Bill Bondeson, who has taught and researched medical ethics.