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For a culture commonly stereotyped as prim and proper, the British have always managed to push the envelope when it comes to thought-provoking, controversial documentaries–think Channel 4’s 2002 airing of a live–albeit delayed–autopsy before a paying London audience. Sky Television continued the tradition Wednesday night by airing a 2006 assisted suicide called “The Suicide Tourist.”
Suffering with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Craig Ewert, 59, opted for assisted suicide instead of continuing down the path toward complete paralysis. “Once I become completely paralyzed, then I am nothing more than a living tomb that takes in nutrients through a tube in the stomach,” he says, summing up both the physical and metal anguish of his condition.


Oscar-winning Canadian director John Zaritsky directed the documentary, following Ewert and his wife to Switzerland where euthanasia group, Dignitas, arranges for and ultimately allows him to provide his own death.
Religious and right-to-life groups have been up in arms about the airing, but Sky Television has received positive feedback as well. In fact, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on the floor of Parliament, noted in a response to a question about the airing, “‘I believe [assisted suicide] is a matter of conscience. It is necessary to ensure there is never a case where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it is expected.”
I agree with the Prime Minister. Surely, we want to make absolutely certain that no one ever feels coerced, but right-to-life should imply right to an acceptable quality of life. To insist that someone suffering so immensely does not have the right to end their life is simply selfish of the living.
While the documentary was meant to spur conversation around euthanasia, the real debate that’s here is whether or not it is acceptable to broadcast an actual assisted suicide on television.
While some worry that the showing “undermines the vulnerable and it undermines people’s right to life, ” Dr. Peter Saunders, of the group Care Not Killing, approaches it from a cultural critique angle, telling The Daily Mail: “There is a growing appetite from the British public for increasingly bizarre reality shows. It is a slippery slope.”
But what Dr. Saunders fails to grasp is that this is not a reality show; and it’s ridiculous to characterize it as one. Even though the name implies it, reality shows are not real, they are scripted and produced and people know that. There is a suspension of disbelief required.
“Suicide Tourist” is a documentary–it documents real life. The suffering of family members stricken with ALS and other debilitating diseases is real. There is no make-believe here. These are real life and death decisions. Even those who are morbidly curious, should come away having more insight into the complexity of Ewert’s decision and the depth of the suffering that drives him to it.
In fact, reality shows, with their selfish behavior, manipulation and consumerism undermine humanitarian values and sympathy, while documentaries like this one, even if the viewer disagrees with it, do the opposite, increasing our sympathy for people in dire circumstances we pray we never have to face ourselves.

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