LONDON - A British television channel plans to show a film about an American man who commits assisted suicide at a Swiss clinic, reigniting debate over an issue that strongly divides opinion in Britain. Opponents called the broadcast a ratings-grabbing stunt.
Feelings about the issue ran so high Wednesday that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was asked about the program in Parliament.
The 2006 suicide of 59-year-old Craig Ewert was to be shown Wednesday evening in a documentary on the Sky Real Lives digital channel.
Ewert had degenerative motor neuron disease and died at a clinic in Zurich run by the assisted suicide group Dignitas, with his wife Mary at his side. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland in some circumstances and organizations there provide suicide services.
Ewert lived in Britain, where assisted suicide and euthanasia are banned.
The film by Oscar-winning documentary maker John Zaritsky has been screened at film festivals around the world and was shown on Canadian television last year. But it was attracting controversy in Britain, where previous programs on the topic have stopped short of showing the actual moment of death.
Originally called "The Suicide Tourist," the film has been titled "Right to Die?" for its British broadcast.
Peter Saunders of the anti-euthanasia lobby group Care Not Killing said the decision to show Ewert's death was a "cynical attempt to boost television ratings."
Lawmaker Phil Willis, who represents Ewert's home town of Harrogate in northern England, accused the film of promoting assisted suicide.
"While I have huge sympathy for Mary Ewert and the rest of the family and indeed the great courage of Craig Ewert, their private decisions - I do not think - should be made the subject of a public film which is available to everybody," Willis said.
In the House of Commons, Willis asked the prime minister whether the program was "in the public interest or ... simply distasteful voyeurism."
Brown said it was "very important these issues are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism, and I hope broadcasters remember they have a wider duty to the general public."
"Of course, it will be a matter for the television watchdogs when the broadcast is shown," Brown told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
The film shows Ewert, a former computer science lecturer from Chicago, traveling to Switzerland with his wife.
"If I go through with it, I die as I must at some point," Ewert says in the film. "If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer, and to inflict suffering on my family, and then die."
Later, Ewert is shown drinking sedatives and turning off his ventilator.
Ewert's widow said she was "very happy" with the film.
Writing in The Independent newspaper, Mary Ewert said her husband wanted his death recorded and shown "because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it."
Zaritsky said it was important to show the moment of death to counteract claims "that the death was unpleasant or cruel or wasn't even done willingly."
"By putting it out there, and putting it out there in its entirety, people can judge for themselves," said Zaritsky, who won an Academy Award in 1982 for his documentary "Just Another Missing Kid."
British law bans "aiding, abetting, counseling or procuring" suicide, but courts have recently been reluctant to convict people who help loved ones to end their lives.
On Tuesday, state prosecutors said they would not charge the parents of 23-year-old Daniel James, who also died at a Swiss Dignitas clinic in September. James was paralyzed from the chest down after an accident while playing rugby.
Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said there was enough evidence to charge his parents, Mark and Julie James, but a prosecution would not be in the public interest. Starmer said it was "very unlikely" a court would send James' parents to prison.