Friday, April 15, 2011

The Suicide Tourist

I recently watched the "The Suicide Tourist," a moving and compelling PBS Frontline documentary dealing with the controversial topic of assisted suicide. The piece focused on Craig Ewert, a retired professor living in London, whose rapid deterioration after being diagnosed with ALS brings him to the brink of a monumental decision, to live or die. Mr. Ewert knows he is dying, but sees the situation as having two choices, to die now - as he will eventually, or to continue living, suffer and have his family suffer and then die. In spite of this realization, the decision isn't an easy one for him. He readily admits "I'm not tired of living, I'm tired of the disease, but I'm not tired of living. And I still enjoy it enough that I'd like to continue. But the thing is that I really can't."

As he debates his decision, Mr. Ewert reaches out to an organization in Zurich, Dignitas, which offers physician-assisted suicides. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland and other countries, as well as in two U.S. states - Oregon and Washington, but only Switzerland allows outsiders to come and end their lives in their country, hence the title of the documentary.

Despite his will to live, Mr. Ewert is in a race against time and the disease. You see, for him to be able to use Dignitas he has to be able to drink the lethal sedative that will end his suffering. If he waits too long, the disease could ravage his body to the point that he would be unable to swallow, and he'd be left with no options.

Mr. Ewert makes valid points as to the morality of his decision. He makes note of the fact that individuals against assisted suicide say that you can't take your own life, because you can't play God, but in truth science plays God everyday. The ventilator which was keeping him alive was playing God. If he didn't have access to technology, he would've been dead already. When a baby is born premature and they exhaust every resource to keep it alive, when a patient has to have a heart transplant to keep him/her alive, in fact doctor's are playing God every day. He questions why doctor's can't play God to end someone's suffering.

The documentary was moving, compelling and thought-provoking. You are moved to tears throughout the show, but especially as it reaches its conclusion for the cameras stay with Mr. Ewert right to the end, when he travels to Zurich, and ultimately when he takes the lethal sedative that ends his life. Not easy stuff to watch someone die, even if peacefully, right in front of your eyes.

The piece gives viewers plenty food for thought and discussion - the moral aspects of assisted suicide, as well as the issue of fairness and availability to all. What of individuals who are not in the financial situation to be able to turn to an organization like Dignitas? While Dignitas is a non-profit organization, the current fee for their service, based on an article in The Wall Street Journal, is $10,500.

I'd personally have to agree with Mr. Ewert, individuals who have a terminal illness should have the right to end their own suffering if they so deem it's time. I believe it's a decision between them, their loved ones and their God. I'm Catholic and my faith is important to me, but despite the fact that my religion says suicide is wrong, I don't believe that God, the merciful and forgiving God I love, would condemn someone for trying to find peace.