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Europe

Controversial film stirs debate on assisted suicide

Video by Nicolas GERMAIN

Latest update : 2008-12-10

A documentary about a terminally ill British resident who chose to end his life at a Swiss clinic was due to air on a UK television channel Wednesday night, prompting a political debate on assisted suicide.

AFP - A film showing a terminally-ill man ending his own life at a Swiss clinic has reignited the debate about assisted suicide in Britain, where it was due to be screened Wednesday.
  
Craig Ewert, a 59-year-old former university lecturer from the United States, suffered from motor neurone disease and chose to end his life rather than endure its "nightmare" symptoms, his wife Mary said.
  
The couple allowed his 2006 death at the Dignitas clinic near Zurich, Switzerland to be filmed by Oscar-winning Canadian documentary maker John Zaritsky.
  
Although assisted suicide is illegal in Britain, where the Ewerts were living, a series of recent high-profile cases of people travelling to do it legally in Switzerland has raised complex ethical questions.
  
On Tuesday, prosecutors said they would not charge the parents of 23-year-old Daniel James -- who committed assisted suicide at Dignitas in September after being paralysed in a rugby accident -- for taking him there.
  
Britain's Parliament rejected a bill proposed by a Labour member of the House of Lords, human rights lawyer Lord Joel Joffe, to legalise assisted suicide for people with terminal illnesses in 2006.
  
The film of Ewert's death, to be shown by a British satellite channel Wednesday night, shows him using his teeth to activate a timer which switches off his life support machine in 45 minutes, according to press previews.
  
With Beethoven's Ninth Symphony playing in the background, he then drinks a heavy dose of barbiturates and a Dignitas representative says: "I wish you good travelling."
  
His wife holds his hand and kisses him after a machine which aids his breathing switches off with a loud beep.
  
Mary Ewert wrote in the Independent newspaper that allowing cameras to film her husband's last moments "was about facing the end of life honestly."
  
"He was keen to have it shown because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it. They don't acknowledge that it is going to happen," she added.
  
The film, which has already been shown in Canada, the United States and the Netherlands, has split opinions in Britain.
  
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said it was important the programme dealt with the issue "sensitively and without sensationalism" while noting he had always opposed legislation to allow assisted death.
  
"I believe it's a matter of conscience," he told lawmakers during his weekly question and answer session at the House of Commons.
  
"These are very difficult issues and we should all remember at the heart of any individual case are families... who have to make very difficult choices."
  
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat lawmaker for Harrogate, the northern English town where Ewert lived, said he was "incredibly uncomfortable" about the film.
  
"What we're actually saying is that you can make assisted suicide easy, painless and acceptable," he told BBC radio. "What people will do is to see this as a very easy way out".
  
But Barbara Gibbon, head of Sky Real Lives, the channel which will show the film, said it was important to "stimulate debate about this issue through powerful, individual and engaging stories."
  
A spokesman for Ofcom, which regulates British television, said it could only consider the programme after screening to check for breaches of its code, which says suicide should not be shown except where it is justified "editorially" and "by the context".

Date created : 2008-12-10

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