Last Rights: Facing End-of-Life Choices
A documentary film produced in association with Mississippi Public Television about the last choices we will make
The decisions made by four terminally-ill patients about how they were to die profoundly impact their families.
A film by Karen Cantor
TRT: 56:40. Released 2009
DISTRIBUTED by Filmakers Library, a division of Alexander Street Press,
About the film
Who decides how life ends? The patient? The family? The physician? The health care system? This is a compelling and deeply personal exploration of four families and their terminally-ill loved ones as they face death. It brings up a multitude of issues implicit in the individuals’ option to hasten death when the dying process makes life unendurable. Last Rights explores medical, ethical, and political issues.
We meet Scott Nelson, a physician in the Mississippi Delta whose father, Elbert Nelson, was diagnosed with kidney cancer; Julie McMurchie from Oregon whose mother, Peggy Sutherland, was just beginning to enjoy her life after divorce when lung cancer overtook her; Lennie Gladstone of the Washington, DC area whose beloved husband, Doug Gladstone, was diagnosed with liver cancer; and Carol Poenisch of Michigan who tells about her mother, Merian Frederick, whose body was atrophying with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). For guidance the patients turned to clergy, medical professionals and legal authorities.
Several nationally-known spokespeople with diverse points of view appear in the film: Derek Humphry (Final Exit); J. Wesley Smith ( Forced Exit ); and Barbara Coombs Lee of Compassion & Choices. In addition we become acquainted with Reverend Kenneth Phifer who stood by Merian and her family when she decided to take control of her death. The film also includes newsreels of Jack Kevorkian who ultimately helped Merian Frederick die; We are also given a brief history of the hospice movement and its founder Sister Cicely Saunders’ commitment to palliative care.
The heartrending journeys of the four terminally-ill people depicted in this film not only profoundly impacted their families, but also offer viewers insights into controversial end-of-life choices.
Main characters: Merian Frederick, suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) went to Dr. Kevorkian for help in dying in 1993. Her story of finding an illegal solution to help her die when faced with a terminal and debilitating illness is contrasted with the tale of Peggy Sutherland, who was very ill with lung cancer and died under the auspices of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law in 2001. Both Merian and Peggy had five children, one of whom was mentally challenged, and their primary caretakers were their youngest daughters; respectively Carol Poenisch and Julie McMurchie. Doug Gladstone had received state-of-the-art medical care to treat his liver cancer. When it was clear that he was dying, Hospice came on the scene to assure he did not suffer in his last days. Elbert Nelson, father of Dr. Scott Nelson, committed suicide when his quest for treatment at the best cancer centers in the country did not change his prognosis.
Families and Friends: Carol Poenisch, Merian Frederick’s youngest daughter; Connie Frederick, Merian Frederick’s middle child; Rick Frederick, Merian Frederick’s second oldest son; Connie Plice, a good friend of Merian Frederick’s; Ken Phifer, Minister Emeritus of the Ann Arbor, MI Unitarian Universalist Church who accompanied Merian on her journey from diagnosis to death; Julie McMurchie, Peggy Sutherland’s youngest daughter; Lennie Gladstone, Widow of Doug Gladstone; Scott Nelson, M.D., Son of Elbert Nelson and the narrator.
Experts appearing in the film include: Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Author, Forced Exit; John Finn, M.D., Director, Michigan Hospice; Sidney Wanzer, M.D., Author, To Die Well; Derek Humphry, Journalist, Author, Final Exit; Howard Brody, M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Michigan State University; Jack Lessenberry, Journalist; Nicholas Gideonse, M.D., Family Practice Physician, Cottage Grove & Portland, OR; Barbara Coombs Lee, J.D., R.N., Executive Director, Compassion and Choices
Comments about Last Rights:
Sigrid Fry-Revere, President of the Center for Ethical Solutions – a bioethics think tank, “I just watched ‘Last Rights.’ Wow! The film has gone from being fascinatingly interesting to also being beautiful and a joy to watch. Bravo!”
Linda Gottesman, President of Filmakers Library, “We really love the film and feel it goes way beyond the niche market. It’s a film about living and values and family relations and will touch the humanity in those who see it.”
Roland Halpern, Director of Community Relation at Compassion & Choices wrote, “Fabulous! I think you’ve got a winner here.”
Christopher Springmann, radio host says, “it exudes compassion, empathy and a real understanding of the issues.”
Mary Ann Mulhorn, former nun, retired elementary school teacher, and published poet wrote, “This excellent film presents such a clear, balanced and ‘sane’ presentation of real people in dire situations of illness and pain. I think the minister was powerful and crucial to this film because he would not abandon his parishioner no matter what her decisions.”
Suzanne Turner, President of TurnerSTRATEGIES in commenting on the relevance of this film said, “Last Rights is the human face of the so-called ‘death panels’. It follows four families as they grapple with the final days of beloved family members. This documentary film is a no-holds-barred, very honest look at the difficult process of deciding to ‘pull the plug.’”
Narrated by Scott Nelson, M.D.
Written, Directed, and Produced by Karen Cantor
Edited and Co-Produced by Chris Gavin
Directors of Photography and Sound Bob Berg, Scott Douglas, Mathieu Mazza, Kevin Partridge, Paul Pytlowany
Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi
Post Production Dominion Post
Music and Score by Harold Stephàn, Magik Music Studios, New York, NY USA
A production of SINGING WOLF DOCUMENTARIES, Inc. in association with Mississippi Public Broadcasting