TV Review: PBS's 'The Suicide Plan' 

****1/2
Joan Butterstein (left), terminally ill and - contemplating suicide, shown with her daughter Kathleen (right). - COURTESY OF FRONTLINE
  • Joan Butterstein (left), terminally ill andcontemplating suicide, shown with her daughter Kathleen (right).
  • Courtesy of Frontline

This season, Frontline has aired two outstanding documentaries about my two favorite subjects: climate change and assisted suicide.

You may recall my review of Climate of Doubt, an hour long expose on the deniers who, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your perspective), just lost further standing with the arrival of a superstorm named Sandy, and the concomitant conversation about climate change that ensued.

Now, just weeks later, Frontline provides an inside look at assisted suicide, focusing the majority of the 90-minute documentary on assisted suicide advocate Final Exit Network, and its series of legal struggles, which has resulted largely in victories for the assisted suicide movement.

Various perspectives are presented in this excellent, well-made and sober work: a physician, an activist, a son, a daughter, a prosecutor, jurors — and, most movingly, an 83 year-old suicidee named Joan Butterstein.

Those against assisted suicide featured in the doc include family members who feel their loved ones weren't in their right mind with the decision, but mostly it's legal authorities who object. One prosecutor admits it's not so much about the issue of assisted suicide, but about "the rule of law."

As is made obvious by this documentary, people aren't waiting for laws to change, and are instead taking their lives — and deaths — into their own hands.

I come to this documentary from numerous preconceived perspectives. One, I am not religious, so I don't think that suicide is a sin, or that the taking of one's life is tantamount to playing God.

Secondly, I worked as an orderly in a skilled care unit of a healthcare facility for four years. I saw all measure of suffering that defied any rational explanation. Dementia. Brain tumors. Cancer. Comas that went on for years. Many people got better and went home — or back to their nursing homes. Many others lingered, long past the point of the possibility of the cessation of pain, let alone the opportunity for pleasure or happiness.

That was not just my perspective as a caregiver, but in many cases, was stated aloud to me by the very people exhausted by their suffering.

Why wouldn't people want to hasten their departure from this earth? I know I would.

If you don't "own" your own life, what do you own?

Death is a part of life. Everything dies. Without death we can't have life. But with everything humans have done, we've made the natural, unnatural.

As the baby boomers age and face, in a tidal wave of humanity, end of life decisions, this conversation will come fully out of the shadows. Maybe at that time we can put into perspective not just our feelings regarding human life, but our broken connection to nature, which we have systematically bludgeoned — first, to create creature comfort, then, especially in the past 100 years or so, to run roughshod over its resources with appetite, greed and derision.

The Suicide Plan, produced, directed and written by Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor, adds to an essential conversation. Watch it with friends and loved ones, then talk with others about it.

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