The debate about assisted suicide reached Downing Street yesterday, as television viewers were shown graphic footage of a man ending his own life to avoid a lingering death from a painful illness.
Gordon Brown set his face against changing British law in a way that would permit relatives or medical professionals aiding patients who have decided that they would like to die rather than prolong their suffering. "I believe it is necessary to ensure there is never a case in this country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it is the expected thing to do. That is why I have always opposed legislation for assisted deaths," the Prime Minister told MPs during Prime Minister's Questions.
Yesterday, Sky television defended its decision to broadcast a documentary that showed Craig Ewert, 59, from Harrogate, North Yorkshire, swallowing a lethal mix of sedatives and switching off his own life support system in a clinic in Zurich run by the firm Dignitas. His wife, Mary, was at his side during his last moments, and the fatal cocktail was prepared and handed over by a retired social worker. Both would have been liable for prosecution if the assisted suicide had taken place in the UK.
The decision to show Mr Ewert dying in harrowing close-up has provoked angry criticism of Sky and is being considered by the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom. Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, told the Commons that health groups, campaigners for the disabled and religious leaders opposed assisted suicide. He asked Mr Brown: "Do you regard this programme as being in the public interest or is it simply distasteful voyeurism?"
The Prime Minister said: "I think it is very important that these issues are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism and I hope broadcasters remember that they have a wider responsibility to the general public. Of course, it will be a matter for the television watchdogs when the broadcast is shown."
Earlier, at a regular Westminster briefing, the Prime Minister's official spokesman emphasised that there is a clause in the broadcasting code covering the reporting of suicide, and that it would be for Ofcom to consider whether the programme breached the code. Ofcom confirmed yesterday, before the documentary was broadcast, that it had already received a number of complaints, but said it could not take action ahead of transmission.
The Broadcasting Code states: "Methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programmes except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context."
Dr Peter Saunders, the director of the campaign group Care Not Killing, which opposes assisted suicide and campaigns for better care for the terminally ill, described the broadcast as a "cynical attempt to boost ratings". He added: "We'd see it as a new milestone. It glorifies assisted dying when there is a very active campaign by the pro-suicide lobby to get the issue back into parliament."
Barbara Gibbon, the head of Sky Real Lives, which broadcast the documentary, said: "Recent events in the UK have highlighted the real dilemmas that some people are confronting and have put the subject of assisted suicide into the public arena as never before. As a broadcaster, we believe that there is a role for television to inform public debate about even the most challenging subjects."
Craig Ewert was an IT specialist and university lecturer who moved from Chicago to take up a teaching post in Harrogate in 2001, and was struck down by motor neurone disease five years later. He paid Dignitas £3,000 for facilities at its Zurich clinic.
His death was filmed with his consent by the acclaimed Canadian director John Zaritksy, who told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "By putting it out there in its entirety, people can judge for themselves."
From the website: Views on the issue
Should assisted suicide be legal?
* "Why is it so difficult for people to understand death with dignity? I, for one, would not want my family and friends to watch me suffer." Charlotte
* "If someone is really suffering badly (or will) enough to wish to die, who are we to stand in their way? I, for one, find it indescribably cruel and unethical to refuse someone their right to such self-determination." AngryReptileKeeper
* "You would be prosecuted for cruelty if you kept an animal alive under the circumstances we keep some people alive." judge mental
* "What could be more undignified than murdering a person, even if that person is yourself? If death entails suffering, how much more dignified to allow one's endurance of it to become a beacon for those around you." MT Han
* "Having the choice, that's what it's all about. Being in control of your own existence... What a wonderful gift, to be legally able to control one's own fate and relieve oneself of pain, torment and to pass with dignity intact." Kegs
* "Everyone with terminal illness should have the right to decide when and how they die, assisted or not." Denise
* "It calls for greater courage to face life till the end... than to run away from it. Those around should support/encourage the person rather than snuff their life." Bartholomew
Should this programme have been broadcast?
* "The sanctity of life is casually thrown aside in this sad sad programme. Sky TV are an absolute disgrace." Alan Clayton
* "I don't see what all the fuss is about. The BBC showed somebody dying on their Human Body programme a few years ago." Rosie Glendower
* "It amazes me that this is actually being broadcast on TV and being held up as a wonder of humanity's dignified right to die... " Hannah
* "I saw this programme last year... it was exceptionally well done... Craig went peacefully with music in the background and wife present... it was his right to die as he wanted... and I applaud him for his decision as well as his family for supporting him throughout this ordeal..." MaureenReuse content