LONDON - The scene is difficult to watch, even for viewers inured 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 - last night with the broadcast of the assisted suicide of the 59-year-old terminally ill American at a Swiss clinic.
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 yesterday - "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 that 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 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 yesterday that her husband had been enthusiastic about having his final moments televised.
"He was keen to have it shown," she said, "because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it." She added that her husband wanted viewers to understand that assisted suicide allowed him to die comfortably rather than enduring a long, drawn-out and painful demise.
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 whether 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 were legalized in more places.
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.
Dignitas, a well-known assisted-suicide group in Switzerland, where suicide is legal in some circumstances, aided Ewert.