Louis Theroux's New Documentary About Death Leaves Viewers "In Bits"

image courtesy of the bbc.
The latest instalment in Louis Theroux's new documentary miniseries aired on BBC Two on Sunday night and it was an intense, emotionally charged watch that divided viewers on social media. In Choosing Death, the second film in the three-part Altered States series, Theroux explores assisted dying in California, where it's legal for terminally ill people to end their lives.
Being such a sensitive and controversial topic, the film was bound to stir debate on social media and it did just that, with viewers debating the issue of assisted dying itself – should we have the right to end our own lives? – and the way in which the BBC told the subjects' stories. Choosing Death is a far cry from the frivolity of last week's Love Without Limits, which saw him delve into the awkward world of polyamory.
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California is one of the six US states where it's legal for people to take a lethal overdose if they meet certain conditions: they must be terminally ill, of sound mind and strong enough to administer their own prescribed dose. Theroux visits the family homes of people who want control over ending their own lives, and finds that choosing the right time is far from easy.
Many praised the film for giving a voice to the terminally ill people whose wishes are so often overlooked in the ethical and moral debates about assisted dying, and for handling the issue with such sensitivity.
But there was less consensus in the reaction to one particular storyline. Theroux meets the controversial Final Exit Network, a group of volunteers that goes further than the state's existing laws by offering technical advice to people who wish to die but aren't necessarily terminally ill. The group believes people in psychological pain, not just those in physical pain, should be able to take their own lives, and as such they operate in a legal and ethical grey area. They've had a felony conviction and other prosecutions in the past, the film notes.
Theroux meets Debra, who was left with physical ailments after a serious car crash, including dementia-like symptoms, and is heartbroken by her husband's recent death. She wants to end her life long before what would appear to be her natural time, and seeks the Final Exit Network's help. The segment stirred up complex moral and legal questions about how much control we should have over our own deaths.
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Perhaps the most moving moment in Choosing Death, though, is when the life of Gus, a retired respiratory therapist with stage four pancreatic cancer, ends on screen. Gus has a full life by anyone's standards, with a wife, twin daughters and a new grandson, and he wants to end it himself before the disease does it for him. He dies with his family, Theroux and the film crew by his side.
The BBC's decision to show his death on screen caused a schism between viewers on Twitter, with many arguing that the BBC's editorial choice felt "intrusive" and "like a step too far".
But the overwhelming reaction to his story was heartbreak. Countless viewers said how moved they were by Gus' story, with many describing themselves as grieving. Regardless of whether or not it was ethical for Theroux to be present as he died (although presumably Gus' family will have consented), there's no doubt that airing his story helped to humanise the issue of euthanasia.
Assisted dying is legal for terminally ill people in just a few countries and US states, including Oregon and Washington, Canada and Switzerland. Assisting a suicide remains a crime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
'Choosing Death' is available on BBC iPlayer.
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