Suicide programme 'glorifies assisted dying'

Wednesday 10 December 2008 11:34

A television programme which shows a man ending his life in an assisted suicide has been accused of being the latest "reality TV" stunt.

Craig Ewert, 59, suffered from motor neurone disease (MND) and chose to die rather than endure the "torture" he feared his degenerative condition meant.

Footage of his death will be broadcast on British television tonight during the programme Right To Die?.

Dr Peter Saunders, director of the campaign group Care Not Killing, said the show was a "cynical attempt to boost television ratings".

"There is a growing appetite from the British public for increasingly bizarre reality shows. 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."

Care Not Killing opposes assisted suicide and campaigns for better care for those living with terminal illness or disability.

Dr Saunders said: "It's a slippery slope. The danger is that we start to believe in a story that there is such a thing as a life not worth living.

"A change in the law would put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives so as not to be a burden."

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Mr Ewert, a former university professor who lived in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, travelled to Switzerland to commit suicide, assisted by the controversial organisation Dignitas.

At a Zurich clinic, with his wife Mary by his side, the American father of two drank a mixture of sedatives and turned off his own ventilator using his teeth.

He allowed his death in September 2006 to be filmed for a documentary by Oscar-winning director John Zaritsky.

Right To Die? shows Mr Ewert bleakly outlining his options as "death, or suffering and death".

But publicity material for the documentary asks: "Should Craig Ewert be able to kill himself, even though it could be years before his disease would kill him?"

John Beyer of Mediawatch-UK said: "I'm not sure whether the moment of death is something for television but the real concern is whether this is influencing the public in a way that it shouldn't be."

Mr Beyer said his main concern is whether the programme is impartial and complies with broadcasting regulations.

"If such a thing is presented in a very partial way, that is something we should be concerned about."

Kirstine Knox, chief executive of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said: "This must have been a very difficult decision for Craig and his family to take.

"We respect and understand why they have made this decision in order to raise awareness. We are here to support everyone with MND. It is not for us to comment upon individual decisions.

"Craig's journey highlights the devastating nature of MND and some do choose to end their life in this way.

"As an association, we neither support nor oppose any attempt to change the law regarding assisted suicide because we believe it a matter of individual choice.

"I know this is a difficult subject to talk about. However, I hope it highlights the need for better palliative and end of life care in this country."

It was announced yesterday that the parents of a former rugby player who committed suicide at a Dignitas-run clinic would not be prosecuted for helping him to die.

Daniel James, 23, killed himself on 12 September, more than a year after a rugby accident which left him paralysed from the chest down.

Liberal Swiss laws have allowed Dignitas, founded in 1998, to offer assisted suicides legally and so far more than 600 people have died at its clinics.

Before his death, Mr Ewert said: "I'd like to continue. The thing is that I really can't.

"I can't take that risk, that's choosing to be tortured rather than end this journey and start the next one.

"If I go through with it, I die, as I must at some point.

"If I don't go through with it, my choice is to suffer, for my family to suffer and then die.

"The fact that I know the date I'm going to die simply makes definite what was previously indefinite."

He added: "When you are completely paralysed, can't talk, can't walk, can't move your eyes, how do you let someone know that you are suffering?"

In his moving letter to his two adult children, who appear in the programme, he wrote: "This is a journey I must make.

"At the same time I hope this is not the cause of major distress to my dear sweet wife, who will have the greatest loss, as we have been together for 37 years in the greatest intimacy."

Sky defended the decision to broadcast the film.

Barbara Gibbon, head of Sky Real Lives, said: "This is an issue that more and more people are confronting and this documentary is an informative, articulate and educated insight into the decisions some people have to make.

"I think it's important that TV broadcasters, and particularly Sky Real Lives, can stimulate debate about this issue through powerful, individual and engaging stories and give this subject a wider airing."

* Right To Die? will be broadcast tonight on Sky Real Lives at 9pm.

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