Bill Long 10/26/05
Presenting Oregon's Death with Dignity Act
Filmmaker Tom D'Antoni came by the law school today to show his latest film, Robert's Story, a documentary of the last two years of Robert Schwartz's life ending with Robert's ingesting a lethal dosage of legally-prescribed Liquid Nembutal on May 3, 2003. Tom made this film with Greg Bond. Robert Schwartz is one of the 208 Oregonians who legallly took his own life through "physician-assisted suicide" since Oregon's Death With Dignity Act became effective late in 1997 (A history of the controversy surrounding the statute is here). The documentary will receive its first real airing in November at a Northwest film festival, so I felt privileged to get a "sneak preview" today. I have two distinct reactions to the film, one a "human" reaction and the other a "lawyerly" reaction, and I want to mention both of these. In some ways I am sad to say that the latter reaction predominates for me now, possibly because I have been so concerned to understand and try to protect this statute from the legal onslaught that will certainly come its way if it is not struck down by the US Supreme Court. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's begin with my "human" reaction to the film, and then move on to my "lawyer" response.
Presenting Robert Schwartz
D'Antoni picks up with the 50 year-old Robert Schwartz, a gay man dying from complications relating to AIDS, the day before he goes to his physician in June 2001 for a lethal dosage of 90 Secobarbital pills. Robert is a man of great dignity and strength, who has weathered a heartbreaking series of medical setbacks in the previous decade and realizes that he now has to get his "house" in order. Before he takes the pills, however, he receives a sort of new birth through a lover/partner coming into his life. As a result, he puts off the scheduled date of his death. More medical problems confront him, including an enlarged spleen that has to be removed, and gradually his condition deteriorates until he decides to take his life early in May 2003. His Christian faith (he attends the Metropolitan Community Church) helps anchor him through this ordeal, which is portrayed with a straightforward empathy. The last shots are of Robert on his bed, having drunk the fatal dosage of Nembutal, surrounded by friends and loved ones who wish him well on the new and strange journey he is undertaking. Robert is very clear with us that Oregon's Death with Dignity Act truly allows him to die in a manner that preserves his dignity and honors those who have loved him. It is an emotionally-touching presentation.
A Litigator Looks at Robert's Story
If the human dimension of Robert's suffering was all there was to the story, I would have little more to say. But the problem with the film is that it will not be seen simply as a story of human pathos and dignity in facing certain death. If Oregon's statute is upheld by the Supreme Court (and I expect it will be), the film will possibly take on a role in the national debate as federal lawmakers seek to close down the possibility of Oregon's law continuing further. Seen from this very likely perspective, I think that the film will give Oregon's adversaries ample ammunition to try to strike down Oregon's law. Two examples will illustrate my point.
Robert Schwartz got his first prescription of a lethal supply of drugs 23 months before he actually took his life. This is a problem and, in my mind, a big problem. Why? Well, the Oregon statute provides that two physicians have to agree that death is imminent (no more than six months away) before prescribing the lethal supply of a legal drug. But here the physicians were "off" by 17 months, and Robert probably could have lived several more weeks or even months before he would have died naturally. When I asked the filmmaker about this, he said, "doctors were wrong, and I was glad they were." Sure, doctors were wrong, and sure it is nice that Robert lived until May 2003. But the fact that he lived 23 months after the first prescription means that the doctors either didn't do a careful job or that the "science" of predicting imminent death is really not very well-developed. The implication, of course, is that people might be terminating their lives several years before they would naturally die--which definitely is not the purpose of the statute. Indeed, allegations of irresponsible use of the statute have already been made. In my judgment the film can be construed this way. I think it feeds into the hands of opponents.
One Politically Incorrect Observation
The other point will win me no friends but, unfortunately, still is true in America. If Oregon wants to put a friendly face on the statute, it needs to show as its dying person someone who was a "majority" person--preferably a 75 year old female or, more likely, male, with a full life of accomplishment behind him and with an obviously debilitating, painful and cruel disease, such as Lou Gehrig's disease. Portraying an AIDS patient who also has cirrhosis, whose final partner/lover was a convicted felon who also robbed Robert in his time of need adds a wrenching human touch to it, to be sure, but adds something that will not "sell" very well in Boston, much less Biloxi. When Rosa Parks, who just died last week, took her seat in the front of the bus, she was not randomly selected; she was selected as one who would best put forward the kind of dignity and innocence that would lend moral weight to the civil rights movement.
Certainly Tom D'Antoni was only trying to "tell a story," and a moving one he told. But I wish that he had been cognizant of some of the broader dimensions in which the film may be seen. The life of Oregon's Death With Dignity statute may depend on it.
[*Tom D'Antoni sent the following email to me on December 8: you fail to differentiate between a documentary and a polemic, and you ignore the intention of the creators of the doc. this is a common failing among reviewers. it was not the intention to find a poster boy for the issue. it was the intention to tell Robert Schwartz' story. also, you fail to mention that it was a collaboration between Greg Bond and me, something clearly labled in the credits and on the website.]
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