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FRONTLINE: The Suicide Plan

Joan Butterstein (left), terminally ill and contemplating suicide, with her daughter Kathleen (right). FRONTLINE explores the shadow world of assisted suicide, where the lines between legality and criminality are blurred.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE
Joan Butterstein (left), terminally ill and contemplating suicide, with her daughter Kathleen (right). FRONTLINE explores the shadow world of assisted suicide, where the lines between legality and criminality are blurred.

Airs Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 9:30 p.m. on KPBS TV

Imagine you have an incurable illness, you want to die, and you want help dying-- what can you do? People who are terminally ill and live in Oregon or Washington, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, can openly ask a doctor for help, but around the country, people who want help dying have turned to friends, family members and right-to-die organizations. They’ve gone underground.

In "The Suicide Plan," FRONTLINE takes viewers deep inside the hidden world of assisted suicide to explore one of the most polarizing social issues of our time. This intimate film is told not only from the perspective of those choosing to end their lives, but also the individuals and right-to-die organizations that put themselves in legal jeopardy by helping others to die.

Hunt Williams tells FRONTLINE about helping his terminally ill friend, John Welles, end his life by shooting himself. “He seemed a little uncertain as to just how to hold the weapon,” Williams explained. "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.” But Williams, 74, was charged with manslaughter for assisting in a suicide, and faced up to ten years in prison.

Joan Butterstein, 81, of Littleton, Colo., is terminally ill and has decided to end her life before lung cancer kills her. For practical and legal guidance, she turns to Compassion & Choices, a leading right-to-die-organization. Compassion & Choices provides Butterstein with what it calls, “the protocol,” a highly confidential step-by-step process on how to end one's life. The protocol recommends a lethal combination of medications that can be purchased online. “I just checked off exactly what I needed, and it came in the mail,” explains Butterstein.

“Our perspective is, what we do is absolutely legal and we do not believe that we could be prosecuted or that there could be anything but a frivolous lawsuit brought against us,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion & Choices. “...No one does this to you. It is not euthanasia.”

FRONTLINE gains unprecedented access inside Final Exit Network, one of the country's most controversial right-to-die organizations. Final Exit Network has helped hundreds of people die, including some who are not terminally ill.

For the first time, Final Exit Network allows cameras into a training session, where volunteers known as “exit guides” learn about the organization’s death-by-helium method which requires people to wear a plastic hood. “A death-by-helium is as peaceful a death as you will ever have,” says Ted Goodwin, former president of Final Exit Network. “You breathe four times, five times…it's just like you're breathing air. And then boom, the lights go out.”

"The Suicide Plan" details how Final Exit Network’s tactics trigger a major criminal investigation. Final Exit Network members were charged for assisting in the death of Jana Van Voorhis, 58, of Phoenix, Ariz. Van Voorhis told the Network she suffered from cancer and other physical ailments, but what she actually suffered from was mental illness. “Jana was not terminally ill,” explains her sister, Vicki Thomas. “She just thought she was.”

“When you're dealing with areas this complex. You're so much better off with an open system than a secret system,” cautions Dr. Timothy Quill, a palliative care physician and leading right-to-die advocate. “Even though it's debated whether it should be legalized or not, I think it's very hard to prosecute somebody for this. This is just a symptom of our societal ambivalence about this whole process.”

"The Suicide Plan" is a FRONTLINE production with Mead Street Films. The producers, directors, and writers are Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor. The deputy executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.