Vice explores the debate surrounding right to assisted suicide, straight from the mouths of those seeking it.
VICEAirtime: Fridays, 11 PM
Cast: Shane Smith, Vikram Ghandi
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 3 - "Right to Die"
Air date: February 19, 2016
Taking a break from the premier global crises of our day, episode three of Vice instead takes a look at an under-addressed, but nevertheless noteworthy and consequential, debate: the right to die. Highlighting the variety of responses and outlooks on the issue worldwide, the episode’s coverage begs the question of whether access to medically assisted suicide should be a personal right. Depicting interviews with a number of people about their personal goals for suicide, the episode takes a heartfelt look at how the denial of death can be as much a tragedy and heartbreak as death itself.
The episode begins in the Netherlands, with a strangely civil introduction. An elderly woman named Antoinette Westerink invites Vice correspondent Vikram Ghandi into her home, hospitably offering coffee. Antoinette displays not a sign of distress or anything short of warmth, despite the fact that within 24 hours, she’ll be dead.
"Here was a table," she says nonchalantly, indicating an open space in her living room. "But tomorrow I will lay here, in my coffin."
Antoinette is one of more than 37,000 people who have committed assisted suicide since the Netherlands’ legalization of euthanasia in 2002. The Netherlands represents one of a number of countries with a more liberal stance on assisted suicide than the United States, where the practice is only legal in five states. As Vice illustrates, however, the movement is gaining ground in the states, particularly with advocates sharing their own stories and giving a human face to such a controversial, if somewhat peripheral, topic.
The most famous of these faces has been Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old Oregon woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, who took her own life via prescription medication in 2014, a decision permitted under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Laws. Ever since, the Brittany Maynard fund has helped stir the conversation surrounding the right to a dignified death.
The Oregon law itself underlines one of the issue's recurrent themes: dignity. As in, is it morally justified to deny the terminally ill a dignified death, particularly those with especially debilitating conditions?
This question looms with perhaps the most heartbreaking interview in the episode: a woman named Christina Simmons, diagnosed with ALS, a gruesome degenerative disease that ultimately confines victims to complete physical paralysis and respiratory failure, and is "100 percent fatal".
"At the end of my disease, you're only able to move your eyeballs," she says, barely able to still speak. "I don’t want to go through that horror, and I certainly don’t want my kids to."
Christina’s condition highlights the core issue at the center of the debate in the US: shouldn’t the terminally ill, facing a difficult death, have a choice of when in the process they die, and how? But the debate itself expands into a greater cultural conversation: should suicide be viewed, and respected, as a personal choice like any other bodily decision? Should it only be respected as such a decision for the terminally ill?
The issue continues to be contested among civilians and medical officials, as seen in footage of the debate surrounding a California Bill, SB-128, aka "The End of Life Option Act".
"Assisting in the taking of a human life is a against everything physicians stand for," says one opponent to the bill, "and defiles the reputation and meaning of being a physician."
"Just to remind you, you’re not gods," says one elderly proponent, taking an atypical religious justification. "God is watching, and God will judge you."
Naturally, one of the opponents to this kind of legislation has been the Catholic Church, who effectively persuaded lawmakers to stall SB-128, despite 70 percent of Californians supporting it. In an interview with the California Church’s top spokesperson and strategist, Ned Dolejsi, Gahndi hears Doejsi's arguments against the bill, which, interestingly, are not simply a matter of religion, but of public policy.
If assisted suicide becomes publicly acceptable, Dolejsi argues, it will create a slippery slope of diminished healthcare to the gravely ill, and may set a precedent of convenience by steering patients away from healthcare and towards death.
Whether one agrees, the discussion raises the perhaps the episode’s most interesting question: where should one draw the line for assisted suicide? Or should a line even be drawn?
It's a question raised by the outlook on the issue in European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal for more than physical reasons. Antoinette, for example, explains she is having euthanasia done because of anxiety, delirium, and PTSD, none of which are physically fatal. Her doctor explains she diagnosed Antoinette with a lifelong personality disorder after three sessions.
Other conditions that fall within acceptance include depression, autism, anorexia, and blindness. In other words, patients may be euthanized for many of the mental afflictions that lead to suicide. The question then is, what should be acceptable reasons for suicide? What moral responsibility does a community and culture have in judging one’s reasons for suicide, and is there a duty to intervene if the reason isn’t good enough? At what point is a society worsening a preventable problem?
The episode's ending scenes starkly illustrate the difference of opinion on the matter between Antoinette's friends and family: while her friends see it as an almost momentous occasion, her children are distraught by their lack of say in the matter.
"In my opinion, the doctor would not be able to directly diagnose her condition, since he did not contact the family," says Antoinette’s son.
"She wanted to die her entire life," explains Antoinette’s daughter.
Nevertheless, both children visit Antoinette to see her one last time before her euthanasia. Her daughter even stays with her until she passes away.
Vice's coverage of the Right to Die debate illuminates an issue that is easy to forget about, primarily because the answer for so many seems to be a clear-cut no, given the inherent sanctity of life argument. But in uncovering the faces and stories behind the debate, Vice emphasizes the point made by so many proponents: the sanctity of death, and the importance of keeping it within one’s own control as a personal right.
Through its typically sympathetic and enlightening interviews and discussions, Vice highlights the importance of questioning and reconsidering the seemingly clear-cut human stance on life and death, especially when personal well-being and dignity fall towards the latter.