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06/08/2016

BioethicsTV: Grace and Frankie Kill Their Friend

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

The Netflix series Grace and Frankie ended its second season with an end-of-life dilemma. The show has been hailed for its portrayal of active, interesting, and vibrant older characters and its embracing of families of all sizes, types, and colors.

Episode 11 introduces Babe, Frankie’s best friend and a free spirit who has spent her life traveling the world and collecting people. We learn that she lived life to its fullest and never shied away from a chance for adventure. Then we learn that she has metastatic stage 4 cancer. Having gone into remission from a previous cancer, Babe has decided that she has wrung every last drop out of life and rather than go through the pain of treatment or the agony of a slow death, she wants a party. She wants the largest and most extravagant party ever seen.

While shopping for a piñata, Babe asks Frankie to help her not only to put together the party, but also, to die. Babe is going to take barbiturates crushed into pudding and after she falls asleep, wants a plastic bag over her head, filled with helium. She needs help for the latter part. Frankie is torn between helping her friend in her dying wish and over whether this act is wrong. If wrong, then she should not participate in it. Grace, her foil and staunchly against Babe’s plans, asks an indecisive Frankie if she loves her friend enough to help. The episode closes with Frankie on her way to help Babe die.

Suicide is legal. But Babe asks her friends to assist in her suicide, an action that remains illegal even in California (where the show takes place) which has legalized assisted suicide. With her advanced cancer, Babe could have gone to her physician and asked for her final prescription. Come to think of it, the source of the pills is not descried, so it is possible that the assisted suicide request process was how she got the pills in the first place. The bag and the helium were to ensure that Babe did not awaken, and that would probably go beyond the assisted suicide statutes.

The show does not offer suicide as a general solution, but rather as the right choice for this very particular character. Grace takes the position that suicide is wrong, that only God can decide when a life ends, and thus will not take part. She won’t even attend Babe’s farewell party. For both characters, the prima facie duty of not assisting a suicide is overridden by the duty to support a rational and competent friend who has made a very difficult decision. For Grace, this means going to the party. For Frankie, it means prepping the pudding, and assisting with the bag and gas.

Not all will agree with this presentation of the assisted suicide debate. Not all will agree with the party atmosphere that surrounded the suicide. And not all will accept that duties of friendship can override duties against killing and harm. But for these specific characters, in this particular circumstance, the action feels right. And that’s the final message from this episode: We should die as we live—fully, deeply, bravely and with love.

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