On Wednesday night, Sky TV's Real Lives channel in Great Britain aired a documentary that showed the final moments of Craig Ewert, a terminally ill man who committed suicide with the assistance of a doctor. Was it a ratings ploy or an important milestone for those who wish to die with dignity? The question has divided Britons and even forced a response by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Artist: Talk Talk
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. For the next six minutes, I'll be covering the controversial broadcast of an assisted suicide. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That’s fair warning, if you don't want to hear about it. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Craig* Ewert who had a motor neuron disease, chose Beethoven’s Ninth as the soundtrack for his last conscious moments. “Soundtrack” is the operative word here because director John Zaritsky filmed those moments for a documentary that aired in Britain on Sky TV’s Real Lives channel Wednesday night.
In the film, originally called The Suicide Tourist, then retitled Right to Die, Craig* Ewert, accompanied by his wife and a suicide assistant, drinks a lethal dose of a barbiturate, turns his ventilator off with his mouth, and peacefully slips away. [CLIP/SOUND OF VENTILATOR IN BACKGROUND]: MRS. EWERT: Hey, can I give you a big kiss? CRAIG EWERT: Of course.
MRS. EWERT: Okay. I love you. CRAIG EWERT: I love you, sweetheart - so much. MRS. EWERT: Okay. Have a safe journey [CRYING]. And I’ll see you sometime. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: He died two years ago in Zurich, where assisted suicide is legal, under some conditions. It is not legal in Canada, where it aired without much controversy more than a year ago, and it’s not legal in Britain, where the broadcast generated so much anticipatory anxiety and outrage that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was compelled to address the gathering storm in Parliament. PHIL WILLIS: Does the Prime Minister regard this program as being in the public interest, or is it simply distasteful voyeurism? PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: Mr. Speaker, these are very difficult issues. I think it’s very important that these issues are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism. And I hope broadcasters remember that they have a wider duty to the general republic. And, of course, it will be a matter for the television watchdogs when the broadcast is shown. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ofcom, the government’s television watchdog, will consider whether the provisions on harm and offense have been breached. Its code states that methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programs, except where they are editorially justified and also justified by the context. It could potentially impose a fine on Sky of up to a quarter of a million pounds.
But, Ewert directed his comments to the moral watchdogs he expected to offend. CRAIG EWERT: There are people who will look at this and say, no, suicide is wrong, you cannot play God and take your own life. All right fine, but you know what? This ventilator is playing God. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ewert said he chose this death because he could control it. CRAIG EWERT: 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. DR. ROB GEORGE: The vast majority of patients - and the evidence supports this - with major neuron disease do not have a choking, unpleasant, suffocating death. That’s just not true. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Rob George, of the group Care Not Killing, carried on the debate this week on Sky News. DR. ROB GEORGE: And so I feel really sad and quite angry about that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Britain’s outspoken website Spiked was more angry than sad. Quote, “However you dress it up, this was little more than a thinking man’s snuff movie, an attempt to turn death into a televisual spectacle for public consumption. It was deeply prurient, preying on our baser rubbernecking desires to watch the unwatchable – car crash TV of another sort.” NED McGRATH: You know, a lot of people turn their head and look at a car accident, and I don't think we have to televise that every Sunday night at 7 o'clock. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Ned McGrath of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, but he wasn't talking about Craig Ewert. His remark, which aired almost exactly 10 years ago on PBS’s NewsHour, was in response to a 60 Minutes story that showed Dr. Jack Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old Michigan man suffering from Lou Gherig’s Disease. Here’s Mike Wallace with Kevorkian. [END CLIP] MIKE WALLACE: And in watching these tapes, I get the feeling there’s something almost ghoulish in your desire to see the deed done. JACK KEVORKIAN: Well [LAUGHS] it could be. I can’t argue with that. Maybe it is ghoulish. I don’t know. But the main point is you - the last part of your statement, that the deed be done! [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Zaritsky, director of Right to Die, told a Canadian TV interviewer last year that he was determined to show the deed, so that no viewer would be left to wonder if the director had manipulated it. JOHN ZARITSKY: As difficult as I felt the experience would be for an audience, I thought it was terribly, terribly important to go through the whole thing and not to play any games or stop the camera right at the last minute. BROOKE GLADSTONE: My unscientific survey of British blog postings and websites suggests that the reactions to Wednesday’s broadcast fall into three groups – those who support assisted suicide and supported the broadcast, those who oppose assisted suicide and opposed the broadcast, and those who support assisted suicide but opposed the broadcast.
Dr. Peter Saunders opposes both. He’s of the group Care Not Killing, and he told the Daily Mail, “There is a growing appetite from the British public for incredibly bizarre reality shows. It’s a slippery slope.”
But, Ellen Leventry, posting on the American website Beliefnet, says that what Dr. Saunders fails to grasp is that this isn't a reality show. It’s reality. Quote, “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.”
*in original broadcast, Brooke gave Mr. Ewert’s name as “Chris” instead of “Craig”