Assisted suicide on TV sparks debate in Britain

Before turning off his ventilator with his teeth as he is dying from a lethal mix of sedatives, the almost completely paralysed assisted suicide patient is heard saying: "I'd like to continue, reported dpa. The thing is that I really can't."

Millions of prime-time television viewers in Britain were Wednesday able to witness the assisted suicide bid of Craig Ewert, a 59-year-old motor neurone disease sufferer and former computer science professor from Chicago, on their screens.

The decision by Sky television's Real Lives series to screen The Right To Die? - a documentary by Oscar-winning Canadian film director John Zaritsky - has reignited a long-running debate about suffering, death and euthanasia.

Ewert, a father-of-two, had come to live in Harrogate, northern Britain "to get away from Bush America," media reports said. In September, 2006, he travelled to Switzerland for an assisted suicide in the controversial Dignitas clinic in Zurich, with Mary, his wife of 37 years, by his side.

"This wasn't a film about him personally. He was keen to have it shown because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it," Mary told the Independent newspaper Wednesday.

Assisted suicide, while illegal in Britain, is nonetheless a highly-topical issue which has been the subject of controversial debate in parliament and in the courts.

It was brought to widespread attention in 2002 when Diane Pretty, a 43-year-old British woman, launched a legal bid for her husband to be allowed to take her life without fear of prosecution.

Terminally-ill Pretty died in a hospice in May of that year, shortly after losing her case in the European Court of Human Rights.

A similar bid this year by Debbie Purdy, a 45-year-old multiple sclerosis sufferer, was also rejected in the courts.

But supporters of assisted suicide said they were encouraged by a coroner's decision this week concerning Daniel James, a 23-year-old Briton who committed assisted suicide at Dignitas in September.

The coroner ruled that the parents of James, who was paralyzed from the waist down following a rugby accident, would not face prosecution.

In 2006, an Assisted Dying Bill was rejected in the House of Lords, but Labour politicians have said that the continuing debate would make it likely for the legislation to be reintroduced next year.

But while those directly involved in the film controversy Wednesday defended the screening, church groups, anti-euthanasia organizations and media watchdogs criticized the step.

"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," said Peter Saunders, director of campaign group Care Not Killing.

He put the screening down to the British public's "growing appetite for increasingly bizarre reality shows" and the "cynical attempt" by Sky to boost television ratings.

But Joan Bakewell, the government's ombudswoman for the elderly, said it was essential for an ageing society to confront the reality of death.

"The fear of seeing death, seeing the moment of death, is very important for people," she said. "The serenity of a peaceful death could be very impressive."

Zaritsky told the BBC Wednesday: "It would be less than honest if we were to do a film about the process of assisted suicide and not actually be able to see the whole of the act. By putting it out there....people can judge for themselves."

Labour member of parliament David Winnick, who supports the legalization of assisted suicide in Britain, said he saw no reason for the footage not be shown.

"There is a sort of feeling that death is a subject like sex was in Victorian times, never to be mentioned in polite company," he said.

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