Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 21 issue 1

The Need for Help in Dying; What I learned from the movies

Faye Girsh

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 21, Number 1 (Spring 2005).

This year, two movies involving voluntary euthanasia (eu=good, thanatos=death) won major recognition: Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside. In the last few years, there were three other, less-noticed movies on the same topic: The Event, The Barbarian Invasions, and One True Thing (from the book by Anna Quindlan). All five movies had to do with people who were severely ill or disabled, who rationally and thoughtfully saw death as the best solution for themselves, and who had help—in some way—from their loved ones in achieving a peaceful death.

Million Dollar Baby became controversial among disabled persons’ advocacy groups because it portrays a young woman who becomes a quadriplegic and wants desperately to die. She attempts suicide, and when she fails enlists the help of the Clint Eastwood character, her boxing coach, who helps her to die using a method unavailable to most people and not known to be reliable or peaceful. Eastwood is taking heat for allegedly devaluing the life of people with disabilities by not having the Hillary Swank character choose life. (This movie is also based on a book, by F.X. Toole.)

The Sea Inside is about a real quadriplegic man, Ramon Sampedro, who campaigned for euthanasia for himself and others for thirty years through the courts and legislatures. Finally, he got his wish with the help of eleven friends who provided cyanide, another method that can produce an intensely painful death.

In The Event, a young man with AIDS wants to die and does so with the help of his mother and friends at a final farewell party. He apparently was able to find a sympathetic doctor to provide the appropriate medications, but they had to be administered to him.

In the Barbarian Invasions, a man dies with the help of his son and with his friends present. He is able to find heroin to ease his pain and hasten his death. In One True Thing, the Meryl Streep character has terminal cancer. She apparently helps herself to die, though her daughter and husband fall under suspicion, because they would have been willing to provide the help.

Looking back over these scenarios, I came to three conclusions:

  • If legal assisted dying were available, much of the anguish of achieving these deaths would disappear. Such bills are being considered now in several states but are opposed by religious organizations, particularly the Catholic Church.
  • Even if the Oregon Death with Dignity Act were passed in all fifty states, it would not have eased the anguish for at least two of the patients in the films, because they did not meet the criteria of having a terminal condition or were incapable of carrying out the final act themselves.
  • It is essential that people know what other options are available to them for a peaceful, quick, and certain ending, should they find themselves in situations where death is the only escape from the suffering of incurable illnesses or medical situations.

Fortunately, resources are available. The third edition of Final Exit by Derek Humphry is must reading for anyone with a terminal or hopeless illness who is considering a planned death. But people should not have to die alone or figure out how to do it by themselves. The Final Exit Network ( can provide phone and personal counseling to people with terminal and hopeless illnesses, advising them in particular on nonmedical methods. Compassion and Choices (www.compassionandchoices.
org) can inform people about a wide variety of ways they can employ to control the end of their lives. There is no charge for these services, and these organizations rely solely on contributions.

Death will come to all of us, but for many it will be prolonged and agonizing and may involve a loss of personhood. To know what is available to hasten the dying process is not sacrilegious, irrational, or dangerous: it is good planning and can bring peace of mind.

“Nobody should be compelled to die but nobody should be compelled to live either.”

–Hans Kung in 
Dying with Dignity

Faye Girsh, Ed.D., is the past president of the Hemlock Society USA and is currently senior advisor to the Final Exit Network.

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