Hemlock Society And Right To Die Films
Cinema Junkie / April 13, 2018
Death. No one likes to talk about it and no one likes to think about how he or she might actually exit this world. But the Hemlock Society of San Diego has some film suggestions that might change your mind.
Welcome back to another edition of listener supported PBS cinema Junkie podcast Beth Accomando.
Death. No one really likes to talk about it and no one really likes to think about how they might actually exit this world. So it's easy to exploit that discomfort through comedy.
As in Monty Python And The Holy Grail are Eric idylls character makes the rounds collecting victims of the plague.
There was nothing. You know I'm not dead.
Every time I say OK I'm sorry I will omit no opportunity to use Monty Python.
Especially not when they might lighten the tone of a dark topic and today's topic is potentially dark. We're going to talk about death and the right to die. I know that might sound bleak but it's not. Death is something we all have to face and deal with whether we want to or not. And films can help us face death and all its various incarnations whether it's dealing with a loved one at the end of his or her life facing a debilitating illness or coping with grief or loss film can seriously address these issues through drama and documentary or use humor in absurdity to allow us to step back and laugh at something that scares us. We're going to talk about films that in one way or another helped champion ideas about the right to die and death with dignity. And here to talk with me about right today films is the president and founder of the San Diego Hemlock Society Faye Gersch so welcome. Good morning.
How are you.
I am good and this is a topic that really fascinates me because I'm a fan of horror. But the thing that scares me the most is not death. Freddy Krueger and Jason but it's things like Alzheimer's or you know dealing with a terminal disease. I mean these are kind of like real world horrors. But before we start talking about these films I just want you to talk a little bit about the Hemlock Society and let people know what this group this organization is.
Well we started 31 years ago are we were at that time a chapter of the National Hemlock Society which no longer exists because in 2004 it merged with another organization. We are actually the remaining one of 90 some chapters that were in the United States. We are and have been actually the most active chapter in the country of the Hemlock Society which believes that people should have a choice in how they die they should die consistent with their own values beliefs and preferably the law and if they choose to have a gentle peaceful nonviolent death with their loved ones present that should be an option for them. And that's hard to achieve. It sounds like a simple goal but it's not. And our objective is to educate the San Diego community about their end of life options. A lot of really bad deaths could be avoided if people knew what they could do to to end their suffering and remind people where the Hemlock Society draws its name from. Well the death of Socrates is an old Greek story. He was given the death penalty for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and he had his choice of drinking the hemlock or being in exile. And to him being an exile was worse than death. And there are things worse than death. So he drank the hemlock which was the choice at the time. Not a good way to die to recommend it even though hemlock is very plentiful and you can find a lot of it and you can boil it and make a tea. But it's like Alice in one day your feet get paralyzed your legs and ultimately
your lungs. So you can breathe not highly recommended death. So we're always looking for better ways to die peaceful ways to die. Ways that you don't suffer. So we try to tell people what their options are. So we have meetings every month and we alternate between having serious speakers. So the next speaker will be on the End of Life Option Act a law that we now have in California and then on the even months we have our film series we call it a film festival it's not happening all at once. We just show a right to die movie and we discuss it on the third Sunday of the even months. They're all free. They're open to the public and we hope that people will stay to discuss these films because they all present different aspects of dying which we don't generally have conversations about in real life.
And what led you to want to include film as a component of your meetings and your group organization.
Well I guess during the course of my life and yours too we've seen some very excellent and unusual films about death and dying and it started to accumulate a list. And to me they're so educational because they depict actual stories of well fictionalized people generally but not always in situations which people encounter all the time.
But the public doesn't know much about them and doesn't have a chance to discuss what those situations are. So some of those things are like a more of the amazing French movie.
We're depicting an older couple where he is taking care of his wife with many strokes. She says she wants to die. He won't permit it. And finally without with giving the whole thing away of course he puts a pillow over her head to end her suffering. And his two. And we really don't know what happens after that. But that to me. I know you love your pictures. That to me is a horror picture. Oh yes. Such a struggle with this loving couple who have such a lovely life in Paris and his lovely apartment and they play the piano and they go to concerts and they do all these things until she has a mild stroke and then she has a series of them until she's finally bedridden and he takes care of her all by himself. Will anybody including the children. And they don't ever have the conversation. They don't ever talk to each other beforehand or even during this nightmare about what both of them would want if it came to that. So she says she wants to die. He won't permit it. And finally he smothers her. What a story that is. We've showed it a couple of times and it's so incredibly moving. And then on the other side of the thing is Soylent Green which is no Charlton Heston's great scene where he says Soylent Green is people. But that's not relevant to our. Our story is here is this unbearable planet which human beings have ruined with overpopulation and no trees and no rivers and no nothing hardly any food hardly any protein except on Fridays where they distribute Soylent
Green. But the thing about this is Edward G Robinson his last film actually finds life so intolerable that he can without shooting himself or hanging himself or doing the things that people seek to do when they find life intolerable goes to what looks like a clinic very pleasant very nice sweet young thing comes up to him. He says I want to go home.
Which means I want to die. Your favorite color. In. Music.
Class. Like. I'm. So. Sign here please Mr. Ruff. 20 minutes are certainly guaranteed. And he goes to a beautiful room and then there's beautiful scenes in front of him of earth as it used to be with trees and rivers and butterflies and flowers and another sweet young thing comes in and she gives him a shot in the arm and he gradually fades away.
As you can do in Canada now. Not quite under those circumstances and dies. And then of course the rest of it is the political aspect that he he gets re circulated into it. So in Greenway for a bit we hear from people all the time is what's a simple way to die. We have complicated ways to die and I can talk about those. But what a simple way to die and people would like something like this and of course we all believe in suicide prevention and we don't want people just walking off the street and saying OK off me. But some people would like that they would like it to be much simpler than it is now much more peaceful much more pleasant. So that Soylent Green on the sort of the other end of the spectrum of more and then it's not always serious and Ngram because there's like this Israeli movie the farewell party that is such a delight and so serious and so sad at the same time that takes place in a retirement community like I live in. And they take care of each other and they find out that one of their members is in the hospital section dying it terrible death. Asking for help to die saying he doesn't want to live anymore. His wife is desperate she doesn't know what to do. And so this group gets together and they try to figure out something and one of them is a veterinarian and he knows about how to help people die peacefully or at least help dogs die peacefully. And he works with somebody else who invents and they talk about Jack Kevorkian's methods and they talk
about Philip Nitschke. Who invented this computer system and they invent something and they go stealthily in the middle of the night with the wife and they give him a peaceful death and then people find out that they have this team of people who do this and they're in great demand people begging them to help. And it goes on to talk about one of the members of the team who is the wife of one of the men. Who is demented getting demented. And the hilarious scene sad scene is she can't figure out what to wear to dinner and she shows up stark naked and her husband ushers her out really quickly and then they she doesn't want to ever leave the room again. She's so embarrassed and so her husband says let's just go down take a walk by the pool. So they go down there and they open the pool cabana door there which he knows about. And they're all the friends there stark naked. Eventually they help her die because her choice is to go to a nursing home somewhere and she goes there to see what it's like and it's horrible. So she chooses to have a peaceful death and they help her. And so there she is among friends having a peaceful death. It's all very stealthy. And if it happened in my place I don't think it would all be locked up probably because a lot of these retirement communities don't like to talk about death or how to have peaceful death. It's a taboo subject. So I love that movie.
I just showed it recently at a conference it's just a wonderful movie where you're half laughing and half crying so do you feel that film is kind of a means to get people to like jumpstart a conversation about this that it gives them something or maybe they don't have to talk about themselves but they can talk about the film and then kind of come around to maybe their own stories.
It definitely is an educational medium. And it's interesting how universal it is that we show films from India from Italy from France from Israel because Mexico because this is a universal problem. People get old they die. It's very rare that people die peacefully and sweetly like in the movies those movies with their families there they usually die now in hospitals suffering even with hospice care. They still suffer and it seems to us that that's not necessary and it seems to the law as well because now the laws over the last 30 years that I've been involved has changed radically so that people have a lot more choices. One of the most common choices I think is to stop treatment which wasn't always a universal right.
It only happened in 1990 when the Supreme Court in the Cruzan case decided that every American has the right to refuse any unwanted medical treatment even if it should lead to their death including. That was the first time including food and hydration. So we have some movies about people dying that way and not enough about people just stopping treatment.
But that is an option that many people use stopping chemotherapy stopping dialysis stopping anything that is life supporting but cumbersome to people and just dying well not just dying they should have very good care when they die that way.
Well it seems like there are a lot more issues raised now because we have science and technology and medicine that can extend life and can do some amazing things but it doesn't necessarily guarantee you a level of quality of life that you might feel is what you want. But you do have this ability to deal with things that you know 50 years ago we might not have been able to extend someone's life.
Right. And a lot of our meetings are about those things. We had a doctor for example who wrote How Doctors Die a small paper in a small journal but it attracted a lot of attention. Kenneth Murray and he came down from Los Angeles to talk about that which is now backed up by data that doctors don't want all these things when they die they don't want to be hooked up to things they don't want. Every miracle drug administered to them. They most people want to die at home and doctors choose to die at home. But people I think don't know that loved ones don't know that and often there's a religious push to have everything everything done even in the most dire illnesses like advanced dementia. Some people want everything done and people can make their choices now. We have meetings all the time are going to have more in beer halls than death over dessert and places where people young people can fill out their advance directives because actually all the history is right to die movement in the last 30 years has been made by young people I don't go into the details but Karen Quinlan was the first woman two young women in her 20s to pass out at a party never to regain consciousness but still living because she had she was resuscitated and her parents wanted her eventually to be able to die. By removing the ventilator that was she was dependent on. And they took it to court. They were maligned. They were serious devout Catholics but they could see that this was not what her daughter that her daughter would want. Finally the New Jersey Supreme
Court ruled that they could make decisions for their daughter and she was taken off the ventilator but not off the feeding tube and so she lived another seven years. But out of her case came the decision. The law passed by. The California legislature allowing living wills so you could write down in advance what you would want. So you wouldn't have to take your case to court.
It would be in your own writing witnessed at every other state thought California was crazy. As you know people still only do so 40 million of us were all crazy here but we like to have our say about what happens to us. And then of course that caught on so everybody every state has a living will and then California again not a result of a particular case. But realizing that you can't speak for yourself all the time past the durable power return for Health Care Act which allows you to designate someone to speak for you about your health care wishes if you can't speak for yourself. And again we were the first state ridiculed horrible derision that you know why am I appointing my son to be my health care power of attorney when he's going to inherit all my money. This would lead to terrible abuses. Well most of us the abuse would be somebody else speaking for us instead of the person we designated. So that happened here.
There are films that do deal with that issue of somebody who is either on life support or in a situation where they don't want to continue in one of the films you mentioned that you liked was the scene inside which was Javier Bardem starred in and it's about a real person real person Ramon Sampedro.
Yes. So that's a film that raises these issues within an artistic form to help because he was mentally competent.
But he was a quadriplegic and many people the disabled community object to that kind of depiction. The depiction that disabled people want to die which that's not true and it doesn't say that. And in fact in the film there is a disabled priest that comes also a quadriplegic who says you can live a good life. But Ramon Sampedro the real San Pedro a very articulate relatively young man talks about why he doesn't want to live that way even if he could. Well he can of course but he doesn't want to continue to live. And the Spanish right to die society was the one that finally helped him in a very interesting and stealthy way. They had 11 people around him all doing different things. Part of helping him die and he died by drinking sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide I can't remember which in a glass. So somebody mixed it. Somebody poured it. Somebody handed him the glass. Somebody handed him the straw. Somebody videotaped the whole thing I saw the whole thing. And the point of that was the authorities didn't know what to do. They didn't know who was responsible. They couldn't arrest all 11 people on no grounds at all. So that's what they did. And sometimes it's necessary to go around the law or even break the law. That's why the law in Holland is so permissive because for a long time people broke the law there. And the the authorities the judges said guilty but because they followed a higher authority were not sentencing them. And that's what happened in Holland the first person was a young woman Dr. Postma who
helped her mother die and she told the police what she had done. She was sentenced found guilty and never never given a sentence. And out of that came judicial guidelines that guided the Dutch practice which is now of course the most liberal practice. There's Jack Kevorkian there's a wonderful film you don't know jack which I would call a docu drama with Al Pacino Al Pacino as wonderful as Jack Kevorkian.
What we're doing here today. His. Words are groundbreaking.
Good morning everybody. This is the morning drive show. It's a special edition of The Morning guys show because of my special guest Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
You might call him better as Doctor down for prisons allowed to die. Do you know. What would you charge. You don't. Charge people. For some rigorous check. Threatening to bring you up on murder charges God charge corporate America is guilty. Governor Perry I should mention no society enjoying life. It is the people think it's my patients feels.
And remind people who Jack Kevorkian was in case they don't know.
I hate to think that he has forgotten man. I even wrote a play about St. Peter versus Jack Kevorkian in which he goes to be judged whether he goes to heaven or to the other place. But you don't know jack. It's was I think made for TV film. And it shows it's a very good depiction of what Kevorkian stands for. How sort of squirrelly a guy he is he's a little strange guy.
You know he lives on Social Security that's all he buys all is he did buy all his clothes in Salvation Army. He lived in his lawyers apartment and all that's depicted in the film very wonderfully. His first case was Janet Atkins a woman who had early Alzheimers who came from Oregon for his help and he recommended to her that he she go back for experimental treatment in Washington state which she did for six months and she was worse when she got to him. But he did help her end the rusty old Volkswagen van that is so legendary. Well maybe not to your audience anymore but said she died in this rusty old van and people thought that was terrible. But Jack couldn't find any place any home for her. To Diane and her husband Ron said that was wonderful that he did this and it was as far as I know his only Alzheimer's case. And that's such a serious thing. Which brings me to the movie Still Alice.
This is happening to me I hate it too.
But we have to keep the important things in our life going. We have to try to go crazy.
Now I know which one I am I'm sorry but I don't know why I would have been like at a dinner party. I might not be able to remember names or answer simple questions I mean never mind get through in anecdotes. I think you're doing great recently relative to what you wish cancer.
I do I mean it I mean I wouldn't feel so ashamed. People have cancer they wear pink ribbons for you and go on long walks and raise money and you don't have to feel like some kind of a social. Kamerman. Worth.
It. Is an amazingly accurate depiction of early Alzheimers and there is a person well well-educated insightful knows all about these neuro psychological things who goes on a jog one day and gets lost in her own on her own campus can't find her way home. And finally she pieces together that she needs to see neurologist or some money. Something. Talked. About. Singing and.
Dancing. It was a statewide.
Meeting. It might be early Alzheimers. But does it make any sense at all. Have time because I don't know anything for sure but I've been doing all these tests. This.
Is completely insane. I got. Asked what was running on campus a while ago. I can't remember.
Appointments. Words we all have memory lapses that's a sign of getting older. The other day I couldn't remember the word. It's just drops out. But there was no diagnosis.
And they tell her that she has dementia Alzheimer's is a form of dementia and that the prognosis is pretty poor. Finally she discusses that with her husband but not in the way we would like to have family discussions. It's not right. She doesn't call the family together and say this is what I have. This is what I would like to happen to myself. I don't want to live beyond this point or whatever point she designates and I want you to understand that I want to die.
She doesn't say that nor does it more do they have that family conversation or even with each other. That's a terrible mistake. She finds the medication somewhere she lies to her doctor and she gets the right medication which is not an easy thing to do. And she writes herself a letter on the computer saying if you can't answer these questions then the medication is up in the night table drawer. Take it all.
Hi Alice. I am you I said a very important CD. So I guess you've reached that point the point where you can no longer any of the questions. So is the next logical step. I'm sure. In your bedroom there's a dresser a Blue Lamp open the top drawer and the fact that your body tells it. It says take all hills with water.
Now there are a lot of us in that bottle but area important you lie down and go to sleep and don't tell anyone what you do.
And in the book she is interrupted by her husband who says what are you looking for and she said my meds. She doesn't even know what they're for anymore. He says I have your meds and you take them these meds for Alzheimers are useless anyway but she forgets the whole plan because she didn't remember it in the first place. There are people all over the world working on how you can avoid this kind of fate because we don't know. After her husband leaves her and after her estranged daughter moves in to take care of her what happens in how she deteriorates and it's invariably a nightmare. It.
Like. What does it actually feel like. Well.
It's not always the same. I have. Good days and bad days and. On my good days I can. Almost pass for a normal person. Then on my bad days I feel like I can't find myself. I've always been so. Defined by my. Intellect my language. My articulation and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can't reach them and I don't know who I am and I don't know what to lose next. It. Sounds horrible.
Thanks for asking. So Alzheimers is incurable. No treatment insoluble at this point and ways out of it are difficult. We plan to have a full day conference on Alzheimers maybe in November to talk about what there is available as a brand new advanced directive out that would.
Maybe we don't know really what the courts would say about this. Maybe ensure that you wouldn't get fed or hydrated when you reach whatever point you designate is another advanced directive that was just published by a journal of the American Medical Association.
So you can try to do these things in advance. You must have the family conversation which she didn't have and still Alice. Another hard story having a really hard story as dementia is dementia. Even worse I think than most terminal illnesses because you not only lose your physical abilities but you and you. You're not necessarily in pain but you lose your personhood your cognition your ability to make choices and to remember what your life was like and who who your loved ones are. So it is a nightmare and I would like to see more conversations about how you can end this. We'll talk about research on Alzheimer's. It's wonderful. We hope there's a cure. We hope there's a vaccine. We hope there is medication that that does something more useful than the medications now. But let's talk about people who want to die. Our next movie is called the event and that's about it's an old movie with Olympia Dukakis as the mother of an AIDS patient.
I can stop this law. Please don't tell this to you. To me my son was here. Just how many of these parties have had. There was so much. That. Sometimes. People.
Died. This was beautiful.
And they figured out they can die and they can get doctors to help them.
And of course these doctors were not following the law. There was no law. Well the law said you can't do this.
And so in the event this show man has AIDS and he does have a conversation with his mother. Olympia Dukakis that he wants to die and he wants to have a party and invite his friends. And she's horrified it's her son should know don't do this. And no I won't come to your party but she comes and eventually he needs some help and she helps him. It's very moving. And we have to really thank all these young men primarily it's not a young men's epidemic anymore it's different but who had the courage to find doctors who would help them. And that was the beginning really of the right to die movement in this country. Not officially officially I would say it started in 1980 with the founding of the Hemlock Society. That's probably not even true either because there was a right to die group in New York that started before that. In fact there was a law introduced in the Ohio legislature I think in 1910 for euthanasia which didn't go anywhere. So it didn't start with Hemlock Society but that was a big impetus. But the AIDS epidemic really made a difference in how people thought about their lives. There were a lot of things that brought this to our attention. Kevorkian was one. And then it disappears from our attention and we stop thinking about it anymore. So fortunately there are groups like the Hemlock Society like other right to die groups that continue to think about it and fight for better laws. So now in California we have the end of life Option Act that we've had now. It'll be two years in June.
That does permit assisted dying by a doctor and that was is a big step forward. And again that was prompted by a young woman Brittany Maynard who had an inoperable brain tumor. And she was living in California with her mother and then her husband and she went from doctor to doctor and they said they beat around the bush but ultimately she figured out that there was no hope that her symptoms of having seizures of forgetting things of not being able to walk sometimes would get worse headaches. And she decided that she wanted to die rather than go through all that because she would have to be in an institution or a hospital or something. So she and her husband her newlywed husband and her mother and stepfather went to Oregon where they had the law. We didn't have them and she got a doctor who agreed that she was terminally ill and a second doctor who agreed that she was terminally incompetent and prescribed the medication that she took. She decided she would die on November 1st 2015 and she had her family there and she fortunately recorded made tape recordings of her wishes and why she's doing this which were played later that year to the California legislature who finally did pass the End of Life Option Act. Thanks to her courage. My name is Brittany Minard.
I am 29 years old and I am terminally ill. The inevitability of death. Is universal the widespread support an overwhelmingly positive response to my story represents our community is ready to have a new conversation about death. The decision about how I and my dying process should be up to me and my family under a doctor's care. How dare the government make decisions or limit options for terminally ill people like me. Unfortunately California law prevented me from getting the end of life option. I deserved no one should have to leave their home. And community for peace of mind to escape suffering and to plan for a gentle death for the vast majority of people. That is not even a remote possibility because of the cost of moving the inconvenience to family and the time it takes to change residency status and doctors confirm eligibility and obtain medication. This must change. Every one of us will die. We should not have to suffer excruciating pain shame or a prolonged dying process. The laws in California and 45 other states must change to prevent prolonged involuntary suffering for all terminally ill Americans.
I mean I'm glad I live in a state in a country that respects life. I'm glad we have suicide prevention clinics. I mean I was a psychologist.
I worked with a lot of suicidal people who fortunately didn't do it because suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem usually but when people want to take their own life because of their suffering from illnesses that cannot be cured or treated or prevented or anything then that's a different story. And we can talk people out of making that choice and families often do. The government certainly tries to do it but people who have a choice now are glad they have the choice. It's not an easy choice in California. At the same time our law went into effect in June of 2016. The Canadian law went into effect all over the whole country. It was very interesting comparison. Because we have 40 million people in California and they have 40 million people in the whole country. But they had a Supreme Court ruling the year before was unanimous 9 to 0 that assisted dying should be decriminalized and they made many other provisions that it should be open to those kind of people and that kind of people and not only doctors should be able to do it but nurse practitioners and it should not only be by self administration that is swallowing some terrible drugs but also by lethal injection the way Kevorkian did it and his final case. And so now that's the law of the land in Canada. So when we looked at the law after a year last June we saw the California probably we don't have accurate data because they didn't have the tallies at that time the maybe 200 cases in California in that year and in encamp in Canada 2000 cases. It's so much easier in Canada
. First of all people prefer a lethal injection which you can get in a hospital here you can't even get it in the hospital. But also the medication which here costs a lot of money is free under the health system where doctors are paid under the health system to do this.
It's such a much better idea. And they're still pushing the death with dignity society in Canada and other right to die organizations in Canada are pushing to expand that law because the law right now doesn't even comport with the Supreme Court decision in 2015. So they're trying to expand it to include minors to include psychiatric patients under certain circumstances. And to include something for dementia when a person loses competence because the two provisions of the law here in California are the person must be mentally competent and terminally ill. And of course in Alzheimers or dementias some of the benches person is not terminal. The person will die. But it could take seven to 10 years. So some solution has got to be found and I hope it's research. I hope it's a cure I hope it's a prevention but if it's not it's got to be some kind of peaceful way that a person can decide when they're going to die.
We've been talking about mostly narrative films fictional or based on real incidents but can you also recommend a few documentaries that are good on this topic.
Well how to die in Oregon which was shown on TV several times.
I think that was a made for TV documentary to shows how the law works in Oregon the Oregon Oregon was the first state to pass an assisted dying medical assisted dying law. So that model is a model we have now in California. It's where you make a request to a willing doctor willing doctors. Very tricky. Who decides who agrees with the second doctor that you do have six months or less to live which is also very tricky and that you're mentally competent which is a little bit tricky. And then there's a 15 day waiting period at the end of which you get a prescription for lethal medication. It's usually Seconal and that price a second is now going up to 4000 dollars. There's an alternative now worked out with four different drugs that costs about 600 dollars. So the doctor writes prescription it goes to a compounding pharmacist who will send you the medication after you when you've decided you're going to use it and you fill out an attestation form a lot of forms here that you're going to use it within 48 hours and then you die very peacefully. You lose consciousness almost immediately and you die within there's variability. The average is a half hour. But it can take up to 12 hours. So that's the procedure here. And it's even in Oregon 20 years later not used by very many people. Absolutely less considerably less than 1 percent of the people who die in Oregon use that law in the Netherlands. It's a little under 5 percent of people who choose to use euthanasia. That's called euthanasia when you get a lethal injection choose lethal injection
. What we have here is self administration. So in the Netherlands it's used much more widely because it's a much broader law and still expanding still expanding. People want this and the population that most wants that I think is what's called.
Well there was a society in England called sors which is society for old age rational suicide and it's people who have led a completed life. They're ready to go. And they would like to die peacefully not shoot themselves not themselves. So the Dutchman working on that for a long time. And they do permitted there. One of the films that we're going to talk to you about is which you probably don't know is called right of way with Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart.
You say we're not worried about the House or the lawn or the cats both of the weeds we are worried about anyway. You have to be mother. You have to be. Well I'm sorry we are.
It's not right. The second.
We know we haven't been ending to the thing. We are not blind and we haven't forgotten. In fact it's just the opposite. We have chosen not to. So you have no choice. And mother.
You simply kill me.
All right mother I'm sorry I left that we wish to do exactly as we please now and in our opinion we're entitled to. After all there is so much time. Oh mother you've been saying that for years. Other scientists too like it's always been the truth. Not like this time. Isn't that so Teddy. We've lived together. And now we're going to die together. What do you mean what are you saying your father is saying we're going to kill ourselves. He wanted you to know it's very funny. Daddy I'm sure this was your idea and you still think you can get me to move back down here don't you. We don't want you to move back down. That's the last thing we want. I guarantee you get in the way and screw the whole thing up. We just want you to know we decided that was only fair.
And besides there are some arrangements that have to be made for you and for us it's a very tricky situation because he is not ill at all let alone terminal. So that kind of situation comes up if course and I'm sure that was a little different story but he was not ill she was terminal. But there are a lot of couples who died together have died together in Switzerland and Dignitas are several places in Switzerland where foreigners can get help to die.
So that's another big question. You know couples that have lived together all their lives practically as all their adult lives who want to die together. And there's no provision for them unless they both happen to be terminally ill mentally competent can qualify under the end of life option act. And I've never heard of them anybody doing that.
Well you brought up a more again and one of the things about that too as there is that level of it being horrific because what you see happen to the wife in terms of her losing her basically her sense of identity as she has these multiple strokes.
But while it's horrific in the sense of the decisions her husband has to make about her end of life it's also like one of the most tender and touching love stories because like he has to make all these choices after she's no longer able to make the decisions herself and it's just the intimacy of their relationship. It was really a remarkable film.
It was it was very tender between them. Especially the nice life that they had before all this happened and then the fact that he was her sole caregiver. She had he had different nurses that he had and they didn't work out and he got very angry at them where they treated her and different different things. And what was so shocking even with all this love is you remember the first time she tries to climb out a window he's gone she's in a wheelchair somebody tries to climb out a window and he catches her. And that's when she says I don't want to live this way it's only going to get worse and he doesn't won't listen. And then the second time when she refuses the food and says I'm going to die. And he slaps her because he doesn't want to lose her. He doesn't want her to die on his watch. Whatever. And that was so shocking. And of course after that she did allow him to feed her. And then finally the ultimate denouement but keeping her daughter out of the scene you know the daughter never knows what's going on with the mother and once the father to do something besides take care of her all by himself. So love makes people do different things and not always the best thing and not always the most transparent thing.
Well because there is that selfish motivation sometimes on the part of a loved one who doesn't want to lose a mother or a child or exactly a parent or something.
I wrote an article or so too for Valentine's Day talking about love and how love can be not always in the other person's best interest and that's certainly true I think and I'm sure there was another movie I think it was an Israeli movie called amore without the use am or it was in the Jewish Film Festival two years ago. And it was about a young woman who has some terrible disease I think Aeolus and she says she wants to die and because she has made a couple of attempts she's now in a hospital being watched 24 hours a day and all her friends and her family know she wants to die. And they feel they can't do anything about it and her old husband her lover somebody comes back from being out of the country. And talks to her. She doesn't ask him for help but he comes back Kimmerer how she dies anyway. He makes sure it happens. Maybe the pillow thing can I'm not sure. And he leaves town and everybody knows what happened. And nobody's telling that's love. You know that's one form of love. Not to say that all her other family and everything didn't love her because they wanted her to live. But also they didn't have the courage to do anything about it to love. You know it takes different forms.
Death and facing death is a very serious topic but there are films that choose to use humor to kind of tackle these issues. I mean talking about right to death. Harold and Maude is a classic cold film where the young boy is constantly committing like fake suicides to get his mother's attention and he starts an affair with Ruth Gordon who's 80 years old or 79 years old but she decides that she wants to die at 80.
I couldn't imagine.
The first day you not going into her are you death.
I took the tablets. No girl got my midnight. This is. Someone.
See that's one about old age national suicide. She's made there as you said about documentaries.
There is one called Mademoiselle and the doctor about a charming woman very much like Ruth Gordon in Australia who has made a decision that 80 is it that's shocking to me because I'm very much enjoying life and way over 80. So she goes Mademoiselle as a French woman. Absolutely charming in perfect health goes to Doctor Philip Nitschke and discusses it with him and he does believe in rational suicide and gets the medication for her and she dies. Very much like Ruth Gordon did and that was pretty sad. I thought Harold Maude the way he was left not really understanding why she would want to do this when he loved her so much that he was totally be rebuffed as people are who don't know that their loved one wants to die and suddenly they're dead because they hung themselves like Robin Williams. I mean that was so shocking to all of us without understanding that he apparently had a form of dementia that was making him crazy. JR Sal killed himself because his brain was all tangled with what's it called concussion syndrome or whatever. And he shot himself in the heart so that he could his brain could be autopsied. And that led to this whole investigation about football and brain damage and all this stuff so you know people kill themselves for different reasons. It's not because they're happy it's because they're miserable and they're suffering even. I mean I had a good friend who jumped off the current Outerbridge I didn't know she was suffering and I don't know from what. And another friend who shot himself who had everything in the world to live for. But depression is a massively
suffering thing to have. And we don't have really good treatments for that either sometimes or people don't want treatments. So there's a lot of reasons for death being something preferable to living with suffering. But people are desperate. And although laws are changing. I've been in this movement almost 35 years. I was 35 years and it's been glacial.
The changes that allow us to make these choices. And sometimes I think when I go into a small town or talk in some country that doesn't have this litigious atmosphere that we do that doctors have been doing this probably since Hippocrates. We even know that during Hippocrates time that was what doctors did even though in Hippocrates oath it says Thou shall not administer poisons or something like that. It also says they should not take money and they should not teach medical students no they should not do surgery and a lot of things in Hippocrates. But I think there's documentation that during the time of the parties doctors did this they saw a patient with a terminal or chronic severe chronic illness suffering.
Sometimes the family agreed. Sometimes they didn't know the doctor would come and give them an injection of something they would have a peaceful death but that doesn't happen anymore doctors don't have the right or courage or the guts to subject themselves to possibly get entangled with the law. Not all doctors some doctors are not breaking the law but are willing at least to follow the law. The law that we now have in California but that law is 20 years old. That model is 20 years old. And even in arguing it's used very rarely and in Canada it's not used rarely and how it's not used rarely. It's a choice that people can make. So we would like to see that law severely altered enlarged expanded liberalized so that not just terminally ill people can use it. I mean a six month to live criterion is not a criterion that's used in Europe or Switzerland or Holland or Belgium. It's how much you're suffering and how long you've been suffering not how long you have to live. That's a good hospice thing but it's not relevant to whether you should get aid in dying or not. In my opinion. Well not just my opinion. It's not the criterion in Canada either. They're trying to make it more clear what is the criteria. Because people have six months to live who aren't suffering that happens and people who've been suffering for years and years and years with terrible diseases like LSM this who can't use law.
So are people who know what the potential for their quality of life. I mean like I that Alzheimer's the thing that probably terrifies me more than anything right. Because you're no longer yourself. And if you know you have that and you know what the prognosis is it's not like you mentioned it's not like you know you're terminally ill and have only six months to live. But you know what your future is looking like. And I think the ability to make a decision about like well you know if I get to the point where I can't recognize my loved ones and you know I can't be myself then at that point at that time at that point you can't do anything about it because you're no longer mentally competent.
So this advanced directive thing is very much in a state of flux. Even our advance directives are not legal documents. The final exit network our sister organization National Organization will now accept cases where advanced directives are being ignored or not honored. But those cases don't always succeed in court because it's not a legal document. The POLST we have the right to have the POLST which is physicians orders for life sustaining treatment. It's a pink document that's you can fill out is supposed to be when you have a year left to live. That's not clear either. Who can fill that out. But it's a legal document has to be signed by a doctor. So until the law changes and it's so gradual people are on shaky grounds about even expressing their wishes in advance. But these are slow grindingly slow situations and in these movies you see things that are not covered by the law. We have a short movie that's very funny well funny.
It's called relics I don't know why it's called relics. Anyway this young guy is out there in his suit and he's in the middle of the street shouting about his new vacuum cleaner that does everything. It's such a wonderful thing.
And this woman invites him into her house an older woman and then her daughter comes. Get out of here we don't want to hear about any vacuum cleaners and the mother says Yes I do actually so why don't you leave or find out about the vacuum cleaner. He starts telling her all the miracles that this vacuum cleaner can do and she says I've got this helium tank here and I can't do this. Would you mind hooking me up to the helium tank. I'm going to use it to end my life. Like what and she says My daughter won't help me and I am I forget whether she has what illness she has and so he does it and he leaves the house. And he's walking down the street and the daughter comes and finds her mother dead and she yells after him. You did whatever she yells and he keeps walking. I mean the amazing little things amazing little things that are done. There's a new one now. I haven't seen it yet actually of a husband and wife who I think died together using the Oregon law. I mean this is his concern. We showed the Indian movie goes Irish when I was in India. And the funny story when I was in India I was in some small town or something my daughter and I were shopping with the Skydome man who was our guide and he disappeared for a few minutes and came back and he said to me you're interested in the right to die movement aren't you. So what is what I've got your name here I Googled you and. I said yes he said well
you probably would like some something I can get you something. I said great good get me something he said will cost about twenty dollars and my friend will be here in about an hour. And you have to see this movie was Irish. So I wrote it down. I ordered Amazon I guess it's a beautiful beautiful movie this beautiful handsome man and this beautiful young woman and his beautiful house that they're living in and go I think it is. And he's a quadriplegic. He was in an accident. He was a circus performer in somebody's sabotage the trapeze and he fell and became quadriplegic but he still does radio things and he has his radio show and he asks his audience he says I want to die do you think I should be able to die. And they all say it's understanding his situation. Yes you should be able to. So he and his mother and his nurse go to court and the court denies his his plea to die and he comes back in this woman his nurse gets rid of her husband and decides to marry him and she says I'll help you. And they have this wedding. And his friends all come and that's the end of it.
Now you mentioned that kind of the right to die movement is something that's relatively recent in our history in terms of passing laws and things. But there are some older films that have raised questions about is killing a mercy killing or is a killing justified possibly. I remember I read about an act of murder. Oh that's wonderful 1948.
We showed that. I love that movie Fredric March.
You said you were opposed to mercy killing. Why. Why. Because there are 10000 laboratories working at this minute all over the world. What is incurable today is curable next Wednesday. Six months from now it's the last six years. Meanwhile Kathy was in agony.
What would you have done. I don't know. It doesn't matter. It's all over there's no point in torturing yourself.
While we were driving through the rain. I looked. She. Was asleep. I said to myself know she has no pain. She's at peace for the moment. I knew that I didn't want it ever to happen again. I was sure it was the only thing to do.
And I was right.
Wasn't that deals with the idea of somebody committing a mercy killing and being brought to court about why he brought himself has turned himself in and said I helped my wife die and it turns out and he's a judge he's a judge.
He showed himself no mercy at all. Turns out she had taken the medication herself. Oh that's a marvelous movie.
But right now it's kind of early and in terms of the discussion.
Absolutely. I think I don't know when this whole thing started but that is it's you right I think 40. Yeah. Every once in a while there's a whole explosion of media coverage of the subject. Right now I would say it's minimal. We have a law when the law changed there was a lot of coverage. And now this recedes into the background and you know people don't think about it anymore. Because it's not. I mean we are now having death overdraft. We're having beer places where you come and drink beer and do your advanced directive or death over dessert or where I'm at. You bet it was Death over Dinner.
So does this feel like progress to you. Yes progress. It's progress.
I mean I live in a retirement community where it's never discussed. We have our own little end of life discussion group which we can't really make public because they don't want to talk about this. And everybody is there to die you know. So it's very strange and people would like more information and they come to me and say well how do you really do it. I say if whatever I know we do in public meetings and if you would come to our public meetings maybe you would find out.
But in a word it's not easy.
So you know and people say well I know you have him exercise and I'll join when I really need it. No oh we won't have it. You know we can't just wait for people to be dying to join us. And once.
Yeah and your whole point really is is that you want to reach a point with the law where people have legal rights as to how they can end their lives.
That's not I want to expand the law but I want people to know what the rights they have now and there are lots of them lots of them.
And we try to tell people about refusing food and fluids that of course became legal in 1990 with the crew's decision but it's questionable whether that's a great way to go. There's a movie about that this doctor in Colorado made a movie of his own death and we will show that when we talk about the set it's called voluntary stopping eating and drinking. We show that we've showed that before but we'll show it again and probably do that for months from now because we're now talking about all the different ways to die. So the last meeting we had was on the nitrogen method to Final Exit Network. And now we're going to talk about again the End of Life Option Act and how a doctor actually does it and then probably talk about the said voluntary stopping eating and drinking. And then talk about dementia and what the options are.
So if somebody does want to come to your meetings or become board member where can they find information about you.
So our Web site if you just google Hemlock Society of San Diego you'll find us the Web site is Hemlock Society San Diego dot org and we have a lot of information on our Web site.
So it's an ongoing process and should be because more of us are getting older more of us are dime prolonged and sometimes agonizing deaths. And as you say we can be kept alive indefinitely practically hospice is great palliative care is great but some people are ready to check out and we don't get a lot of cooperation I'm sorry to say from hospice and palliative care. They feel that they can make somebody comfortable. Up until the very last breath and we think people should have a right to not live to the last breath.
Well then that also raises issues of money because it costs people a lot of money to do that. And those institutions then make money off of prolonging those life.
I mean say it's so complex complicated. It is. Well I've always found two are not always but more recently especially that there's a number of zombie films that to me kind of encapsulate my fear of Alzheimer's because it's you look like yourself essentially you're still in your body but you no longer have control of what you do. You no longer have your own identity. You've no longer have. And then your loved ones face this choice of like do you kill the zombie version of you.
Or do you hope there's like to me it encapsulates some of that fear and it brings up kind of these ideas about death and dying that are in a very different way than most of the films you've talked about.
I always thought zombies had free will and were mentally competent and made decisions to do it.
Well it depends on which zombie films you're seeing but there's a lot of them where they they basically descend into kind of an animalistic form or but basically it's a sense of you know you no longer have control you no longer are yourself. But now what's interesting is there's a whole spate of these zombie films that are taking it's what we call the self-aware zombie. So it's a zombie who knows that they're dead and it's trying to give you the perspective of what it is to be a zombie. And so it's interesting because it's kind of dealing with this notion of the fear of the other but it's also dealing with the sense of like you know if if you're aware that you're out there eating people and can't control yourself is that an existence you really want and you know or you know we need a right to die for zombies.
Yeah exactly. Exactly. I mean like if you are a zombie you should have the right to choose whether you are. And do they know you really have very little choice and very little cognizance may incorporate that. Yes. There you go.
Well I want to thank you very much for coming out and talking about these right to die films and about the Hemlock Society. I mean I think what you guys are doing is great it's something that I've always been interested in as I said because you know I fear certain things at the end of my life which I want to be able to have a choice about. And so you know this is something I feel is really important.
We have a lot more control over these things and we think we do because of the legal changes that have happened very very slowly but they have happened and so we're trying to do is educate people about what those options are and prepare them and help prepare families to know what people want. But having the conversation is really important.
I don't know any films that show that there should be some. Well I want to thank you for having this conversation with me. Thank you both for your interest. Thanks for listening to another edition of PBS cinema junkie podcast. I appreciate the reviews. People have been leaving on iTunes. If you enjoy the show please leave a review or recommend it to a friend. Coming up soon we'll have another edition of Real Science where we get actual scientists to talk about the science and films with some surprising results.
There's like a fundamental by word concede that every movie gets right and you get one crazy wacky thing any movie can have one crazy wacky thing right. The Matrix the the the conceit is that we're all living in a simulated reality. OK fine we can accept that and in limitless it's we only use 10 percent of our brains so as a scientist I might kind of roll my eyes at that but I say OK you get that you get the one wacky not true thing and that's that's all any movie gets so cinema junkie comes out every other Friday or at least I try to keep to that schedule.
Consider going back through the archives to check out some earlier shows on things like blaxploitation Godzilla zombies and Hitchcock till our next film fix on Beth Accomando your resident cinema junkie. And since we started the show with Monty Python here's a little bit of Monty Python to go out with.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place