TV film provokes deep disagreement on assisted dying

By staff writers
December 11, 2008

A TV documentary last night showing Craig Ewert, a motor neuron disease sufferer, marked the first time footage of an assisted death - including the moment of death - has been broadcast in Britain. It has provoked an intense debate.

Ewert, aged 59, a retired university professor from Harrogate, North Yorkshire, was shown on the Sky TV Real Lives channel, dying from a dose of barbiturates. He had travelled to the Swiss clinic, Dignitas, accompanied by his wife of 37 years. He was a father of two.

The regulatory body Ofcom is braced for a large number of protests. Supporters of Mr Ewart and of carefully regulated assisted dying welcomed the film as "moving". Opponents point out that the film shows an action which is currently illegal, and say that any loosening of the current law would lead to a situation where the boundary over the taking of life had been unacceptably violated.

Their position was backed yesterday by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said that although the issue was a matter of conscience for MPs and others, broadcasters had a duty to deal with the issue “sensitively and without sensationalism”.

He added: “I believe that it’s necessary to ensure that there is a never a case in the country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it’s the expected thing to do. That’s why I’ve always opposed legislation for assisted deaths.”

But Lord Warner, a former Health Minister, commented: “Gordon Brown’s comments are not terribly helpful... Survey after survey has shown that 75-80 per cent of the population are in favour of assisted dying for the terminally ill when their pain has become unbearable, providing there are appropriate safeguards in place.”

Before his death on 26 September 2006, recorded by TV cameras with the express permission of him and his family, Mr Ewert told the film crew: “I am tired of the disease but I am not tired of living. I still enjoy life enough that I would like to continue, but the thing is that I really cannot."

He went on: "If I opt for life then that is choosing to be tortured rather than end this journey and start the next one. I cannot take the risk. Let’s face it, when you’re completely paralysed and cannot talk, how do you let somebody know you are suffering? This could be a complete and utter hell.”

The debate that has followed the film shows opinion in Britain deeply divided. Many of those who oppose assisted dying in any form do so on religious or sanctity-of-life grounds, but atheist commentator Claire Fox, who does not believe the law should be changed, stressed on BBC Radio 4's 'The Moral Maze' last night that the issue should not be seen as an exclusively religious one.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and senior Anglican leaders oppose assisted dying, which proponents say is different to voluntary euthanasia because it involves a physician prescribing medication which a patient can take to end their own life, not actually helping the patient to die. Opponents dispute the significance of this distinction.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the public, and of the churchgoing population, believe that individuals should be allowed an assisted death in very limited circumstances. They say it is cruel to force someone to go on living against their will in the face of great pain and suffering.

But others argue that a change of this kind would create a situation where vulnerable people and families would feel pressure to end life, and that it focusses on death rather than opportunities for living and the continuing value of lives which have been physically blighted.

Some disability groups are among those who oppose assisted dying. In 2006 a bill tabled by Lord Joffe which would have allowed terminally ill people to be helped to die was blocked by the House of Lords.

The bill proposed that after signing a legal declaration that they wanted to die, patients could be prescribed a lethal dose of medication to take. Only people with less than six months to live, who were suffering unbearably and were deemed to be of sound mind and not depressed would be able to end their life under Lord Joffe's proposal.

Lady Finlay, a professor in palliative care said at the time: "Let us get on with working for patients to live as well as possible until a naturally dignified death, not taken up with becoming complicit with suicide."

She repeated similar observations in the run up to the showing of the Sky film yesterday.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was among those against the bill, saying the cost of voting the it through would be "disproportionately high to the benefit to certain individuals".

Dignity and Dying and the British Humanist Association (BHA) have given support to legal permission for assisted dying, and in 2006 the BHA produced a report 'Bad Faith' which alleged that religious groups in particular had engaged in systematic misinformation about it.

The Christian Medical Fellowship, the Catholic Church and the alliance Care not Killing have vigorously opposed any change in the law and criticised the Sky film, which spokesperson Dr Peter Saunders said "glorifies assisted dying when there is a very active campaign by the pro-suicide lobby to get the issue back into Parliament."

Care Not Killing also said the show was a "cynical attempt to boost television ratings" and likened it to cheap and sensationalist "reality shows'.

But Ewart's wife Mary said: "He was keen to have [the film] shown because, when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it...." She added that her late husband "said that he wanted viewers to understand that assisted suicide allowed him to die comfortably rather than enduring a long, drawn-out and painful demise."

The Modern Churchpeople's Union (MCU), a historic society to promote open theological debate within the Church of England, was one of the religious bodies to come out broadly in favour of Lord Joffe's previous Bill.

In a detailed submission on MCU's behalf to the Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in 2006, Professor Paul Badham, who holds the Chair for Theology and Religious Studies in the University of Wales, argued for a 'good death' as a legitimate Christian option and understanding.

He wrote: "It is interesting that, though historically Jesus died a cruel death at the hands of his enemies, the fourth Gospel presents it as his own choice: 'No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own accord.' From a Christian perspective death is not viewed as a disaster, but as gateway to fuller life. In the early Church this was very firmly believed."

Dr Badham went on to argue that "before St. Augustine changed Christian attitudes to this question, many of the early Christians continued to hold the stoic understanding of suicide as 'a noble deat'. The beliefs of the early Christians provide an interesting counter balance to those of their successors today who give priority to the prolongation of life at all costs."

However MCU said at the time that legislation on the matter needed to be very carefully controlled and monitored, arguing against a time limit on any declaration of intent which ìmay put pressure on a patient to ask for implementation of assisted suicide before that date.

A different approach to choices about living and dying was offered by the Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford and a leading theological ethicist, on the BBC Radio 4 'Thought for the Day' slot this morning. He suggested that "the Christian faith offers two insights to be put into the debate alongside other considerations.

"The first is that though there is an imperative from the Gospels to alleviate suffering whenever we can, the meaning and value of life cannot be assessed simply by trying to balance the amount of pain against the amount of pleasure. Most people instinctively feel that something more is at stake; that there are values like courage and kindness, which take us into a different scale of measurement altogether, one which defines our very humanity...

"Secondly, we are not just solitary, self-sufficient, choosing individuals - a fundamental misconception in the West since the late 17th century. We are dependent on one another from the day we are born to the day we die. To be dependent on others does not mean we lose either our dignity or value as human beings. It is a fundamental feature of being human."

The Independent newspaper notes today that calls for changes in Britain's 1961 Suicide Act "have been marked by high-profile legal bids and a steady stream of publicity about UK citizens who have traveled to Dignitas... to die. Dignitas was founded in 1998 and takes advantage of Switzerland's liberal laws on assisted suicide."

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