British TV to Broadcast Sick Man's Suicide

British TV station defends plans to show man's death at Swiss suicide clinic.

December 10, 2008, 11:31 AM

LONDON, Dec. 10, 2008— -- SKY TV will broadcast a British television first tonight -- an American man committing suicide.

Craig Ewert, who had been living for many years in Yorkshire, North England, ended his life in 2006 in an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, rather than live with motor neurone disease that had left him paralyzed. He also invited Canadian filmmakers to capture his final moments, which will be broadcast this evening.

The documentary will show Ewert, 59, swallowing a lethal mixture of sedatives and switching off his life-support machine with his wife by his side.

The final exchange between husband and wife, who spent 37 years together, is captured on camera. His wife Mary Ewert says: "Can I give you a kiss?" He replies: "Of course."

They tell one another they love each other one final time and she says: "Have a safe journey. I will see you some time."

Ewert, who had lost the use of his limbs, used his mouth to switch off his machine. He died 45 minutes later, listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

The father of two explained his decision in an interview during the film: "I am tired of the disease but I am not tired of living. I still enjoy life enough that I would like to continue but the thing is that I really cannot. If I opt for life, then that is choosing to be tortured rather than end this journey and start the next one. I cannot take the risk. Let's face it, when you're completely paralyzed and cannot talk, how do you let somebody know you are suffering?"

His wife, doesn't think that it was intrusive to allow cameras to film the death of her husband and maintains that it was about spreading a message.

She told the Daily Mail she has no regrets. "If this film gets people thinking about death and talking about it, that's all that Craig would have wished. ... We were both convinced that controversial issues, such as showing someone dying on TV, are only controversial because there's such a taboo surrounding them."

Assisted Suicide

Craig Ewert paid nearly $4,500 to the controversial Swiss-assisted suicide clinic Dignitas to end his life. Famous for its "suicide tourists," Dignitas has helped an estimated 700-plus people from 25 countries to die since it opened in 1998.

Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since 1941 but it remains a criminal offence nearly everywhere else. Only Belgium, the Netherlands and the state of Oregon permit assisted suicide under certain circumstances.

Veteran Scottish politician Margo Macdonald, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, hopes the idea will spread. She is trying to pass a bill in Scottish parliament to make assisted suicide legal in the country.

Macdonald told ABC News that, although she personally doesn't believe this private moment should have been broadcast, she thinks it focused peoples' minds on the subject.

She said everyone should have the right to choose. "What you see happening in the film is exactly the reason why I am introducing my bill," she said. "The loss of dignity came from Craig having to go to another country to die when he wanted to die at home surrounded by friends and family."

This is the first time British television has shown someone committing assisted suicide and it has yet again re-ignited a fierce debate on the controversial and emotive subject of euthanasia.

That's why Terence McKeown of the Canadian company Point Grey Pictures, the film's producer, thought it was important to make the documentary. He told the Independent newspaper, "We felt there was a great deal of value in demystifying this suicide process, because whether people approve of it or not, we think they understand it. If people want to attack it, they should at least know what they are attacking."

Some people see this kind of show as another reality TV stunt in the cut-throat race to attract ratings.

"Its reducing suicide -- a very serious subject -- into a peep show," Phyllis Bowman of the lobby group Right to Life, told ABC "It's a real tragedy."

Television monitoring bodies are now questioning whether this sort of thing should be aired.

Real-Life Broadcast

Barbara Gibbon, head of Sky Real Lives, has defended the channel's decision to show the film. Gibbon told ABC that the documentary is topical, honest and impartial.

"The story of Craig and Mary Ewert provides a moving insight into the real-life stories that lie behind the debate over the morality and legality of assisted suicide," she said. "As a broadcaster, we believe that there is a role for television to inform public debate about even the most challenging subjects."

Anti-euthanasia groups argue that this glorifies assisted suicide and could influence people in the wrong way.

But Craig told the filmmakers that he believed capturing his final moments would be "educative" and would "remove the veil" when thinking about death.

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