The Suicide Tourist

I'll be the first to admit, a lot of what I watch on TV is total poop. For a college-educated, NPR-listening, liberal-leaning, theater-loving, wine-sipping type like myself, it's almost a bit surprising how low I'll sink (not "Jersey Shore" low - more like "Cops" low). My mom got me hooked on "Operation Repo" and now I cannot look away when it is on. (I've you've seen it and have caught a glimpse of Sonia, you know why.) Pawn Stars? I'm on it like white on rice. Dr. Phil? I'm there.

However, every so often I catch a documentary or program that sticks with me for days. I felt that way after watching "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" a couple years ago. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. I love documentaries. The older I get, the more non-fiction appeals to me. Last night, I happened to catch "The Suicide Tourist" on PBS. This was apparently not the original airing, but it is a fairly recent program.

The Suicide Tourist depicts the final journey of a man named Craig Ewert. He is diagnosed with ALS and within months his quality of life plummets. He cannot breathe without the aid of a machine. His limbs are largely useless to him. He turns to Dignitas, a Swiss organization that facilitates assisted suicides. Mr. Ewert and his wife fly to Zurich, where he soon ends his life in an apartment there.

The documentary is straightforward, deftly filmed, and does not wander into sentimentality. I was able to watch it dry-eyed yet fascinated. I was touched by the grace and clearheadedness of this obviously intelligent couple. In his last moments, Mr. Ewert drinks an overdose of a sleeping agent, pentobarbitol. Mrs. Ewert is at his side all the while. As Beethoven plays in the background, he drifts off to sleep and then his breathing machine clicks off as scheduled (it was on a timer). A representative from Dignitas confirms that the patient has died.

The film certainly left me with swirling thoughts and emotions. When I was younger, I was mostly in favor of capital punishment. If you killed someone, I reasoned that you'd lost the right to carry on yourself. However, as I got older, things got murky. A lot of people in prison are, as it turns out, innocent (or at least innocent of the crime for which they've been convicted). Thank you, DNA technology (and I say that with no sarcasm). It's frightening to wonder how many people have been executed in error. While I'm not sure quite how to process the fact that some criminals readily confess and even ask for death, it's clear to me that the justice system is imperfect. And you shouldn't stake someone's life on something that is, at the end of the day, even just a little bit iffy.

Suicide is, of course, a horse of a different color. Really, it is not my place to judge someone who ends their own life. Suicide is a permanent solution to what may well be a temporarily problem (depression, teenage angst, etc.) Suicide is largely preventable, if the right resources are in place. But when a terminal illness is involved, who am I to say that some stricken person should be required to carry on? When it comes to assisted suicide, or euthanasia, I'm not sure that Dr. Kevorkian did the movement any favors. He's kind of, well, creepy. Watching Craig Ewert's death, though, I was touched by how quiet and dignified his death was. I have to think it happened just how he wished (though I'm sure his first wish would have been not to have a terminal illness).

I know many feel that it's somehow wrong to make a conscious decision to end one's own life, that it should be left to God to decide when that day is. However, I've noticed that many of those same people have no issue at all choosing an induction or cesarean date when pregnant. I wonder why it's acceptable to choose the date on which a human enters the world, but not to choose the exit date.

Much to ponder, much to ponder. The full video is available online. Check it out if you get a chance.