I just finished watching the most recent Frontline episode, entitled “The Suicide Tourist”. It was, simply put, the most powerful and affecting thing I have ever seen on television. I write this with tears in my eyes, and an entirely new perspective on physician assisted suicide.
The program documents a man named Craig Ewert, who, five months earlier had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. After his diagnosis he began to rapidly lose motor function, and when the film begins, he is paralyzed from the neck down. His wife of several decades is with him constantly. Mr. Ewert has decided that he would prefer suicide to total paralysis followed by prolonged death, so he travels to Zurich, where assisted suicide is legal, and with the help of a group called Dignitas, ends his life, with his wife holding his hand, and Beethoven playing on the radio.
What makes this program so powerful is that one gets to know Mr. Ewert. He is a likable, chatty person, who, until his diagnosis was living an active, interesting life, which, were it not for the disease, he would love to continue. But he fears that if he waits too long, he will lose the ability to move a muscle, at which point assisted suicide would be impossible, leaving him in a prolonged vegetative state, causing his family years of agony. No one watching could feel anything but profound sympathy for him and his family. And when he finally drinks the drug that will stop his heart, which he knows will separate him from everyone and everything he has ever known and loved, the tragedy is overwhelming.
I used to think that only ghoulish doctors exploited suffering people by helping them end their lives. But “The Suicide Tourist” depicts something else entirely. I am a man of strong faith. I don’t take matters of death lightly. But as someone who feels for those who suffer, I cannot ignore that, for some, death is the more dignified, humane, and, ultimately, loving alternative.
I don’t want to take the smile away from anybody’s face, but if you want to witness the most profound portrait of human courage and dignity, watch “The Suicide Tourist”.