The Hanger and the Plastic Bag: A Review of the Documentary Live and Let Go, An American Death

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The year was 1920. Karl Binding, Chief Justice of the German Reich, and well-respected psychiatrist Alfred Hoche posited the question “Are there lives that have forfeited their individual legal protection because their continued existence has permanently lost all value for the person himself, and for society as well?” This was the question behind Binding’s and Roche’s famous treatise Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Existence. They argued that one of the groups to be “considered for killing” are “...incurables dying from disease or injury, who, fully understanding their situation, urgently wish to be released and have given some sign of this....” Unwittingly, this work, among others, became a philosophical foundation for Germany’s euthanasia program implemented when Hitler took power 13 years later.

Before Hitler started the euthanasia program, he supposedly commissioned his infamous Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to make a film that would promote euthanasia to the general public. Goebbels appointed 39-year-old Wolfgang Liebeneiner to make the film, and in 1941 Ich Kiage an (“I Accuse”) hit German cinema. Considered by some to be one of the best films of the Third Reich, it was subtle and powerfully acted—so much so that as of October 2001 the film was still banned in Germany because of its relevant and dangerous content. The film depicts the story of a brilliant doctor’s young wife who falls ill to multiple sclerosis and insists that her husband kill her before she succumbs to her agony. After viewing the film, Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors (1986), understood “why doctors [he] interviewed still felt [the film’s] impact and remembered the extensive discussion it stimulated among their colleagues and fellow students about the morality of a doctor’s aiding incurable patients to achieve the death they long for.”

I recently learned of a documentary made in 1998 which was screened at the Tiburon International Film Festival in Tiburon, California on March 14-20, 2003. It premiered successfully in 2002, has already been screened at 3 major film festivals, and seems to have gained quite a following. The video is now available through the Hemlock Society.

After viewing Live and Let Go: An American Death, I was struck at how simple and even charming—if not disturbingly macabre—the film is. Film makers Jay Niver and Jay Spain make no substantive statement about or defense of physician-assisted suicide. They largely appeal to the exemplary life of the hero, Sam Niver, and his decision and right to take his own life. Most of Sam’s family are very supportive of his decision and in many ways articulate his desires much better than even Sam himself. Through a series of vignettes about his life as a war veteran and family man, we are exposed to the epitome of the good American. He is a self-assured, no-nonsense, take-the-bull-by-the-horns sort of guy. He loves his family and his community and is depicted as being deeply involved with both.

On the day of his suicide, Sam has to take a regimen of pills and drugs purchased from the Hemlock Society that are designed to slowly and methodically shut down his system. Sam is further instructed to place a plastic bag over his head near the end of the dying process in order to insure his death by suffocation should the pills and drugs fail. Sam must do this himself so as not to incriminate his family, who support and encourage him throughout the day.

Besides being shocked by the film, many viewers may think that Sam’s method of ending his life is not the best defense for the right-to-die movement—considering that the image left in their minds is that of a man’ suffocating himself with a plastic bag. However, something more subtle is going on here. The question implicitly being asked is: “Is this how you want to die? It’s your choice: a bag over your head, or a simple, quick, lethal injection.” Can you see how similar this is to another debate that raged a couple of decades ago before abortion, was legalized? The question and emotions behind it are essentially the same: Is abortion by hanger or suicide by plastic bag really the best for society?

This film should give us great pause. We ought never be naive enough to assume that popular media has little effect on society. Whereas Ich Klage an is a fictional depiction of physician-assisted suicide, this documentary allows viewers to see with their own eyes Sam Niver expire by his own hand. They are cajoled into believing that this is everyone’s right. The film provides us with a fresh challenge not only to articulate and defend, but to vividly portray, a very different, Christian vision of what it truly means to die with dignity.