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Louis Theroux's 'Choosing Death' documentary leaves viewers highly emotional

The second episode in Louis Theroux's miniseries Altered States aired on BBC Two on Sunday.

It explored assisted death in the state of California, where it's legal for terminally ill people to end their lives.

The latest installment Choosing Death divided social media and left viewers feeling emotionally drained after an intense hour. It was a very different scene from last week's episode Love Without Limits which explored the world of polyamory. Viewers this week were debating whether we should have the right to end our own lives, and how the stories of the people featured in the documentary were shown.

California is only one of six states in the US where it's legal for people to take a lethal overdose if they meet a certain criteria: they must be terminally ill, of sound mind and strong enough to administer the overdose themselves. Doctor's can prescribe the medication to patients for the grand total of $350 (£270). Theroux spends time with three different people who are considering ending their own lives because they believe that's the best option for them.

Firstly, we meet a retired respiratory therapist, Gus Thomasson, who has stage four pancreatic cancer. He's been considering other options to end his own life but worries they may not get the job done. He said “I knew I would not die suffering. It’s going to kill me. Why should I wait for it to do that? I’ll kill it,” as a reason for his decision, whilst we watch his family wipe away their tears.

Theroux then meets Laurie and her 11-year-old son. Her cancer has spread "everywhere" and during the interview, she discusses with her son why someone might want to take a lethal dose, which makes for tough watching. Theroux conducts his interviews with Gus and Laurie with compassion, he speaks to people when they're at their most vulnerable, while also exploring the ethics surrounding the subject. He manages to film all sides to every story—making for another perfect documentary. He gives terminally ill people a chance to voice the reasons behind their decision.

Social media seemed to be the most divided about Theroux's final case in Oregon. A group called the Final Exit Network offer technical advice to people who aren't necessarily terminally ill but want to die. They were currently 'helping' a 65-year-old woman called Debra who was in a wheelchair because of a car crash, which left her with dementia-like symptoms. She was also heartbroken by her husband's death five months earlier, had a complete lack of funds for treatment that could help her, and also had no family or friends—pretty bleak. The Final Exit Network had been previously prosecuted for their role in assisting people towards death, yet watching the beginning of a demonstration on how Debra can end her life was quite shocking. We later find out in the episode that Debra achieved her wish, and has died, with two people from the network there watching her.

The lines became blurred as to the real reason Debra was ending her life. It became clearer that people may indeed end their life just so they don't have to be alone. This prompted the question of why this company decided to help this way instead of choosing to alleviate people's loneliness instead, surely that would be more beneficial? Debra stated: “It’s not happening to anyone else. This is just about me”. Despite the ethical issues, Theroux shows how we can't question anyone's personal choice.

The episode ends with us watching Gus die after taking his fatal overdose, surrounded by his family. He wanted them to have a party, so they break out the champagne and play music, but after he takes his final breath a different picture is painted as they all break down. It is an extremely emotionally charged moment and made for tough viewing, but Gus died the way he wanted too.

Choosing Death forced viewers to decide on their thoughts towards the topic and how they would respond if they had a terminal illness or knew someone wanting to end their suffering. The documentary was extremely thought-provoking and was filmed perfectly. Theroux got every side of every story and left viewers with a lot to think about, while also making the show extremely moving. The final episode of the Altered States series will air next Sunday and focuses on the topic of adoption.

Did the documentary change your views on assisted death?
Featured image: Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash

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