Culture, Opinion, Review

Louis Theroux’s Altered States: The Eternal Debate of Choosing When to Die

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By Jack Warne


Louis Theroux is back again with his second series of Altered States (BBC 2), to poke his curious perspective into the ever unique and varied states of America. After last week’s episode, which focused on the rise of poly-amorous relationships, the tone has slightly darkened and shifted towards a debate which is one of the most difficult and controversial in contemporary society.

Death is something which is often kept at arm’s length in the larger consciousness of humanity for the most part, and it’s this powerful piece of documentary which has reminded me of this fact, and will do for many viewers, as Theroux resists to turn away from hard truths in the most professional, journalistic and most significantly; human, way possible.

There are now six states in the US which offer the terminally ill the option of ending their lives with a prescription of a cocktail of drugs. Louis’s focus begins in California, where he visits terminally ill Gus who is suffering from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and has recently been given six months to live. California is one of the more recent states to adopt the law, which states that the individual in question must be terminally ill, of sound-mind and strong enough to administer their own prescribed dose.

Gus therefore qualifies for the procedure, and his intention to end his life of his own accord should make sense for the majority of people. Why endure further suffering? Why delay the inevitable? Gus is resting at home in his final days, surrounded by his family and thus it makes sense to end his life before enduring any unnecessary suffering. His situation is upsetting, but from a purely logical stand point, it seems morally suitable to allow someone to prevent themselves from further suffering and to bow out with dignity.

Louis is told that approaching death has always been a personal philosophy of Gus, and that he “would not die of suffering.” Rather than this decision being about death, to me it seems rather about one’s personal life, and a sense of choice and self-respect. He tells Louis the law “needs to be more socially acceptable,” and he hopes that documenting his experience will encourage this.

The footage filmed just after Gus takes the drugs that will end his life are both upsetting and moving in equal power. It shows the procedure to be peaceful, in which Gus was surrounded by his loved ones and enters a gradual deep sleep. No suffering. This particular, individual example of this law in action seems ethically suitable and difficult to make a case against.

But, just how far can this go? In the example shown of Deborah, 65, here is a person who is going to end her life despite not suffering for a life-threatening illness. She is wheelchair-bound after a serious car accident and is suffering from dementia-like symptoms. A group who call themselves ‘Exit Guides’ are helping her in ending her life.

They are protected by free speech laws and do not cross the line of assisting in suicide. They instead help by instructing clients each step of the procedure, and the client is required to have bought their own equipment.

The clear issue here, is one concerning extent. Should it really be within law to let someone end their own life with prescribed drugs because they personally feel they want to? If there are no apparent life-threatening illnesses, things become more complex, and a slippery slope emerges. It is less clear-cut to observe than Gus’s case.

I walked away from this documentary with one thing clear in my mind: This is the individual’s decision. Not you, nor I, but theirs. As Deborah tells Louis, “This is happening to me, not you.” Her decision is by no means easy, as she informs Louis, and a level of respect must be granted to her decision, regardless of legal stand points.

The documentary didn’t make me swing one way or another. Instead, it makes sense to prevent a human being’s further suffering, but as shown in the case of Deborah, things can start to get more complex in terms of how much control we legally give to all individuals over their own death.

What Theroux has done so effectively though, is remind to us that death is something we should address and debate thoughtfully, rather than lock in a box until the time comes.

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Jack Warne

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