Over the centuries, death as entertainment has gained popularity as civilizations have degenerated into chaos. We think of the Gladiator battles and the slaughter of Christians and others in the Roman Coliseum, or the public beheading of thousands in the French Revolution, or the macabre displays of mass murder in the Nazi Holocaust. Now as Western Civilization continues to turn from biblical Christianity, embracing secular humanism, the dance of death is once again coming to the center stage in public entertainment.
Case in point, this week British reality television aired someone committing suicide in front of a national audience.
According to Associated press writers Frank Jordans and Jill Lawless, the scene is difficult to watch, even for viewers inured to the subject of dying by a steady diet of violent Hollywood and television fare. Craig Ewert, a former computer scientist from Chicago, is shown lying in bed with his wife at his side while he takes barbiturates. He asks for a glass of apple juice to mask the bad taste and help him swallow. Then he uses his teeth to turn off his ventilator — and dies on camera.
Britain's obsession with reality television reached new heights — or depths — Wednesday night with the broadcast of the assisted suicide of the 59-year-old terminally ill American at a Swiss clinic.
The televised suicide in Britain follows a well-publicized case in Florida, where a teenager killed himself on camera last month and broadcast the chilling images live on an Internet site.
Showing the final moment of death had long been a final taboo, even for no-holds-barred British TV, where sex and violence are common, and the broadcast unleashed debate on an issue that strongly divides public opinion.
Photographs of Ewert's final moments dominated Britain's newspaper front pages Wednesday — "SUICIDE TV" screamed one tabloid — and prompted a debate in Parliament, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quizzed about the propriety of the decision to air the program.
Before he died, Ewert said taking his own life would mean less suffering for himself and his family. "If I go through with it, I die as I must at some point," he says in the documentary, which chronicles his 2006 decision to take his own life after being diagnosed with degenerative motor neuron disease.
"If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer, and to inflict suffering on my family, and then die."
Care Not Killing, an anti-euthanasia group aligned with the Catholic Church and other religious organizations in Britain, denounced the broadcast as "a cynical attempt to boost television ratings" and persuade Parliament to legalize assisted suicide.
"There is a growing appetite from the British public for increasingly bizarre reality shows," said the group's director, Peter Saunders. "We'd see it as a new milestone. It glorifies assisted dying when there is a very active campaign by the pro-suicide lobby to get the issue back into Parliament."
Mary Ewert wrote in the British press Wednesday that her husband had been enthusiastic about having his final moments televised.
"He was keen to have it shown because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it," she said, adding 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 AP reports that the documentary by Oscar-winning director John Zaritsky has previously been shown on Canadian and Swiss TV and at numerous film festivals, where it provoked little controversy. But it struck a raw nerve in Britain, where the divisive debate over assisted suicide remains unresolved.
Zaritsky said it would have been "less than honest" to make the film without showing the actual suicide because it would have left viewers wondering if the death was unpleasant, cruel, or carried out against Ewert's will.
"By putting it out there, and putting it out there in its entirety, people can judge for themselves," he said, adding that the documentary gives viewers an insight into how assisted suicide would work if it is legalized in more places.
Originally called "The Suicide Tourist," the film was renamed "Right to Die?" for its British broadcast on Sky TV's Real Lives digital channel, which draws far fewer viewers than the network's myriad news, sports or movie shows. Still, it generated enormous publicity, with clips shown throughout the day on Sky News and rival channels.
Ewert, who was living in Britain when he became ill, went abroad to end his life because assisted suicide is illegal in Britain.
In the film, he says he wanted to take action before the disease, which destroys cells that control essential muscle activity such as speaking, walking, breathing and swallowing, left him completely incapacitated.
The documentary shows Ewert and his wife going about their daily routine: Mary cleans her husband's teeth, bathes, shaves and feeds him as he bows his head.
Speaking in a reedy voice and breathing deeply from plastic tubes attached to his nose, Ewert said he felt like "empty shell."
He said some people might say: "No, suicide is wrong, God has forbidden it. Fine, but you know what? This ventilator is God."
The program shows Ewert being interviewed by Dr. Hans-Jurg Schweizer in Zurich, Switzerland. Schweizer, who is responsible for filling out the lethal prescriptions, gives his approval and wishes him a "happy journey."
Later, Ewert is set up on a small yellow bed in a nondescript room; as the technicians get ready, his wife says her goodbyes.
"Have a safe journey," she says, tearing up. "See you sometime."
Ewert chokes down the lethal cocktail, slurping apple juice through a pink straw to blot out the taste as the ninth movement of Beethoven's symphony plays in the background. His wife holds his hand as he begins dying.
Dignitas, a well-known assisted suicide group in Switzerland, where suicide is legal in some circumstances, aided Ewert. The group's founder Ludwig A. Minelli said the presence of cameras and filmmakers did not in any way influence Ewert's decision.
"Ewert, because of his illness and his declared intent right from the start to shorten his own suffering, never once considered the possibility of abandoning his assisted suicide," said Minelli.
The case came up during the prime minister's question time Wednesday when legislator Phil Willis, who represents Ewert's district, complained that the film promoted a crime. He asked Brown if the prime minister believed the show was "in the public interest" or simply a case of "distasteful voyeurism."
Brown did not venture an opinion, saying only that the government's "television watchdogs" will scrutinize the show after it is broadcast.
According to the Associated Press, public opinion polls suggest that 80 percent of Britons believe the law should be changed to allow a doctor to end a patient's life in a case like Ewert's, but opposition from influential religious groups remains strong and the anti-suicide law remains in place.
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