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On Tuesday March 2, PBS premiered the first North American broadcast of “The Suicide Tourist,” a controversial documentary on assisted suicide that made huge headlines in Britain upon its showing two years ago, to little uproar.
The Suicide Tourist,” which was featured as part of the series “Frontline” and can be found in its entirety at PBS.com, follows 59 year old, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, sufferer Craig Ewert, and his wife, Mary, as they live out his last days prior to a scheduled physician assisted suicide.
It is a remarkable story and one that is sure to spur discussion and disagreement.


Unlike those suffering from severe depression or other chronic medical conditions, there was no chance of recovery for or suitable amount of palliative care available to Ewert. Stricken with a particularly aggressive form of ALS that causes rapid deterioration, Ewert was wheelchair bound and being kept alive by a respirator mere months after diagnosis. As the disease progressed, he would lose the ability to communicate in any way and have no control over any part of his body.
His greatest fear, he explains frankly, is to be trapped inside “a living tomb that takes in nutrients through a tube in the stomach” with no ability to alert those around him to the pain he might be experiencing. In fact, ease of suffering, for both himself and his family, fueled his desire to contact Dignitas, the Swiss organization that would assist with his suicide. (Currently, two states, Oregon and Washington, allow the terminally ill the option of physician, or medically, assisted suicide.)
“At this point, I’ve got two choices,” Ewert says. “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 essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering on my family and then die — possibly in a way that is considerably more stressful and painful than this way. So I’ve got death, and I’ve got suffering and death. You know, this makes a whole lot of sense to me.”
Ewert counters those who would argue that suicide is “playing God” by pointing out that using extraordinary means to save premature babies, conducting organ transplants, or even relying on a respirator to keep someone alive (such as his case) is really a form of “playing God.” But, he notes with a hint of acrimony, that people only pull out the judgmental “playing God” card when it comes to the possibility of actually relieving someone’s suffering via assisted suicide.
The documentary, directed by Oscar award-winner John Zaritsky, is not easy to watch, but not because Ewert’s quiet death by overdose is shown. It’s everything leading up to the denouement that stirs up numerous, difficult emotions. Ewert, a former school teacher and college professor, is so articulate about his struggle to live, the frustrations he has with his condition, and his desire to be in charge of his own death, that you can’t help being drawn in and wonder what would happen if you or a loved one were in his wheelchair. This it seems was his final lesson.
Angelika Preston, posting on the PBS message boards, perhaps puts it best and sums up why the Ewert family allowed this journey to be filmed in the first place: “I was captivated by Craig in an instant. This was an unlikely subject for me to watch as I have just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer stage four. Craig has given me courage with his willingness to illuminate what should not be feared. To me it was dignified, peaceful and an act of love by strangers as well as his family. I can only wish the same for everyone at the end of their life. Suffering has its place. It’s at least half the story we live out. When it is time to go we have the right to transition to our new beginning and go in peace. Thanks for helping me live my life with less fear by way of this wonderful documentary and the Ewarts for sharing a private, intimate moment.”

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