How To Die In Oregon: Our Culture’s Dance with the Devil

Generally, people don’t like a story where all the main characters die. However, that is precisely the point of a new HBO documentary entitled How to Die in Oregon, which traces the lives—and deaths–of a number of people after the passage of Oregon’s notorious 1994 assisted suicide, or “Die with Dignity” law.

The documentary begins with a morbid scene of a volunteer from an assisted suicide group called “Compassion and Choices” asking an old man surrounded by his family two questions: “You know you have the right to change your mind?” and “Do you know what this medication will do to you?”

The man answers gruffly that he wants do die, and affirms that he knows he is choosing suicide. The scene closes morbidly as the man breathes his last.

This documentary is a perfect example of how those who reject biblical truth are selling their message to the next generation. “I’m very against religion telling me what to do,” declares one man defiantly. And the message of “dying with dignity” is cleverly sold to viewers as it follows the lives of a number of elderly people and cancer victims, all asking for “medication” that will kill them while saying things that while intended to be comforting, should chill all of us.

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

“It’s the decent thing to do. For once in my life I’ll do something decent.”

“I just want to close my eyes and drift off…”

The film is eminently visceral, and incurs powerful emotions. It follows the journey of one likeable, dignified woman with cancer as she tells her children and husband that when she loses certain functions, she wants to take poison to end her own life. As the documentary records her grief, the grief of her family, and the gut-wrenching pain she suffers from her cancer, you begin to feel empathy. Her suffering tore at my guts while I watched. You slowly begin to understand why she’s making the decision to die.

That is because when we abandon any objective truth, decisions become about how one feels, not about what is right. Compassion becomes not what is best for someone, but what will make them feel the best temporarily. The documentary does not once address the fact that death is the gateway to an eternity, that we will not just “close our eyes and drift off,” but rather face our Creator. It cites people talking about how they want ultimate control over their lives, without examining whether or not that control is ours to take.

Neither does it address more fundamental truths. Why is human life valuable in the first place? What are the dangers, the “slippery slope” of assisted suicide? When God is taken out of the picture and we succumb to utilitarianism, it can be argued that suicide in the face of suffering is the right answer. Of course, if God does exist, then our desire for the “right” to choose our own time to die is just one more evidence of our complete societal rejection of the sovereignty of God. This documentary tries to normalize death, ignoring the fact that death is inherently unnatural—a punishment for our original sin that should never be considered normal.

And while the secularists will immediately accuse me of a slippery slope argument, how can we not examine the implications of allowing the practice of medicine extend to the gruesome business of ending lives? We have only to look at the Netherlands, where reports tell us many are euthanized without their consent, and the elderly often fear going to the hospital because doctors have become dispensers of death as well as life. They cannot be sure that what the doctor is putting in their IV bag is medicine—because the word “medicine” has been mangled to include poison.

Indeed, the documentary does admit the possibility of this, citing a man named Randy Stroup. Stroup was suffering from prostate cancer, and asked his health insurance provider to cover new chemotherapy treatments. Instead, he received a letter informing him that while his prognosis wasn’t good enough to waste money on chemo, they would pay for “end of life treatment.” Essentially, they quietly informed him that his life was no longer worth fighting for, and that if he wanted to die, they would pay for the poison.

When Stroup went public, the Oregon Health Board reversed its decision. However, this scenario is just a little preview of what is to come. With many reports citing the desertion of elderly parents and relatives in care homes by the younger generation, we should ask ourselves not just what a terminal cancer patient would do with a perverse law like this, but what impatient and greedy children might do as they see “their” inheritance slowly shrinking to pay for the care of their parents. When love waxes cold and human life is valueless, there may be many who will say in despair, “I don’t want to be a burden” and actually believe that taking their own life is “the decent thing to do.”

For Canadian readers, take note. The documentary also interviews a woman named Nancy Niedzielski, who helped crusade for the legalization of assisted suicide in Washington State. On her way to an interview with a Canadian radio station, she comments: “Evidently this is a hot topic in Canada.”

And so it is. We must remain vigilant against the further eroding of our Christian heritage and further attacks on the value of human life, created in God’s image. When you receive requests for assistance by those who seek to combat euthanasia and other attacks on human life, please respond. The churches are the conscience of the nation. If those consciences fall silent, what can we expect? Look to the Netherlands, and say “Not here. Not in Canada.” Look at their mobile euthanasia units, the commitment of infanticide due to the 2002 Groningen Policy, and their downgrading of human life, and make a decision. This cannot happen here.

Here, we can still fight.