Britain to see assisted suicide on television for first time

December 10th, 2008 - 12:58 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Dec 10 (IANS) For the first time in Britain, a television channel will Wednesday night show a terminally ill man ending his life in a case of assisted suicide.Craig Ewert, 59, a former professor suffering from a motor neuron disease, died by his own hands at a Swedish clinic on Sep 30, 2006. But the filming of his death is only being broadcast now, when Britain is in the midst of a debate on assisted suicides.

The country’s television watchdog, Mediawatch-UK has criticised Sky Television’s Real Lives channel for planning to broadcast the film. But Ewert’s wife Mary is firmly supporting the broadcast.

An American by birth, Ewert came to Britain after an early retirement. He was diagnosed with the disease in April 2006 and was told he would not live long. But the disease progressed so quickly that he even needed assistance to breathe.

He consulted his family - the couple has two children - and arranged for his death at Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, the world’s only country where assisted suicide is legal for non-residents. The clinic has helped more than 700 people from 25 countries to die since 1999.

Ewert paid 3,000 pounds ($4,400) to Dignitas for the expenses to cover his death and cremation. In September 2006, Ewert left his North Yorkshire home with wife Mary and arrived at Dignitas. The couple did not want their children to see their father take his own life.

On Sep 30, Ewert bid a final goodbye to his wife of 37 years. As Mary told him that she loved him, he bit down on a timer to switch off his ventilator and then drank a lethal dose of sodium phenobarbital through a straw. He died 45 minutes later.

The entire sequence is on film, recorded by John Zaritsky, the Oscar-winning Canadian director. He was granted unprecedented access to the right-to-die organisation Dignitas to film Ewert’s last moments. The only time the cameras were switched off was when Mary asked them to withdraw, soon after Ewert’s death, to cry for him in privacy.

Britons will see Wednesday night Ewert talking about his decision. It was not that he wanted to die, but he did not care to live the life of a vegetable, reports the Times.

“You can watch only so much of yourself drain away before you look at what is left and say, ‘This is an empty shell’. Once I become completely paralysed, then I am nothing more than a living tomb that takes in nutrients through a tube in the stomach. It’s painful,” Ewert says in the recording.

Mary can be heard telling the crew minutes after the death that her husband hoped that the film would dispel a taboo about death. “Craig had been a teacher and you could say he made this film with his educative hat on.”

Barbara Gibbon, head of Sky Real Lives, said it was important for broadcasters to stimulate debate on the subject.

“By any standards, the decision to take your own life takes a great deal of courage. To share this moment with a TV audience, as Craig Ewert did, and manage to remain articulate right up until the end, takes exceptional courage. The result is a powerful piece of television,” she said.

John Beyer of Mediawatch-UK said: “This subject is quite an important political issue at the moment and my anxieties are that the programme will influence public opinion. Broadcasters must always remain impartial, otherwise they could influence the public or other sufferers into making a similar action. That’s my anxiety.”

The Ewert broadcast comes at a time when Britons are debating on the morality and legality of assisted suicide, particularly after the assisted suicide of 23-year-old paralysed rugby player Daniel James of Worcester in Switzerland Sep 12 this year.

It may be a first telecast for Britain, but not so in the US where in 1994 ABC’s ‘Prime Time Live’ telecast part of a Dutch documentary in which a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease was killed by a physician’s injection. ABC did not show the moment when the man died, the Post reported at that time.

On Nov 22, 1998, American network CBS, in its “60 Minutes” programme, broadcast a video provided by the controversial assisted-suicide practitioner John Kevorkian. It showed him injecting Thomas Youk of Waterford, Michigan, with drugs. The video then showed Youk in the process of dying. Youk, 52, had Lou Gehrig’s disease.

When Kevorkian was asked on “60 Minutes” if he killed Youk, he said: “I did”, according to a report in The New York Times. It was a case of euthanasia, not assisted suicide, Kevorkian said.

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