'Suicide Tourists' Seek Place to Die

Three people look for a place to end their lives through assisted suicide in John Ziritsky's documentary, The Suicide Tourist.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Legal suicide as a choice for people who have terminal and painful illnesses is available only to a very few. In the United States, only one state - Oregon -allows terminally ill residents to end their lives through, quote, "Voluntary self-administration of lethal medications expressly prescribed by a physician."

In Europe, it's an option for residents of Belgium and the Netherlands. However, in Switzerland, almost anyone from anywhere with a debilitating terminal illness can go there to end their life under a doctor's supervision. There's a nonprofit clinic near Zurich called Dignitas, which helps facilitate these trips.

A new film by a Canadian filmmaker, Academy Award winner John Zaritsky, documents the trips of three potential suicide patients. The film is called "The Suicide Tourists." Here's how we meet one of the subjects.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Suicide Tourists")

Mr. CRAIG EWERT: Hi. I'm dying.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EWERT: There is no sense in trying to deny that fact. And all my convictions that the end of my long journey through life is rather close. I cannot stay where I have been, and I embark and I journey to a destination of which I have only heard the vaguest rumors.

STEWART: We spoke to John Zaritsky about the film.

How are you, John?

Mr. JOHN ZARITSKY (Filmmaker): Very good, thank you.

STEWART: Can you briefly tell our listeners about the three people in the film and what illnesses made them make this choice to fly to Switzerland to end their lives?

Mr. ZARITSKY: Well, the first case involves a 59-year-old American living in England at the time, who had been diagnosed four months earlier with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. And the film chronicles the last four days of his life up to and including his assisted suicide in Zurich at the Dignitas clinic.

The other case is far more difficult. It involves a Vancouver couple, both of whom are 71 and who have been married to each other for 48 years. The gentleman, George Coumbias, has bad heart disease and was forced to retire 17 years ago, and he's had several heart attacks, and his heart functions only at 25 percent of its capacity. But his wife, Betty, on the other hand, is perfectly healthy. But shortly after his - her husband's heart problems began, Betty decided that she wanted to die with George at the same time, that they wanted to die in each other's arms. And so they go to Zurich to see if Dignitas and a Swiss doctor will agree to their plan to die together.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Suicide Tourists")

Mr. GEORGE COUMBIAS: It is my body. It is my decision, in agreement with my wife and my family, so it doesn't concern anybody else. And as we've lived together 50 years, we wanted to die together, and happy.

Unidentified Man #1: This is also your intention?

Ms. BETTY COUMBIAS: Oh, yes, long ago. From the day we got married, he was all my life. I love my two daughters, but I love him more. And I don't think I can face life without him. And since we read about Dignitas, we felt what would be better than to die together?

STEWART: Why did you make that choice to pick a story where it's a little fuzzier than perhaps some other cases?

Mr. ZARITSKY: I did it very deliberately, because I wanted to push the boundaries of the right to die to be out to its extremes. And, of course, for me and for many, the ultimate question is, should a healthy person, a perfectly healthy person, still have the right to die? And so I thought this would be certainly controversial and provocative for an audience and promote debate -fierce debate, which it has, where - whenever it's been shown. The decision and the resolution of the couple is very, very controversial, of course.

STEWART: Without giving too much away, you are in the room when one of these people - when that person's life ends.

Mr. ZARITSKY: That's correct. When the 59-year-old American Craig Ewert dies, we were present with our cameras.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Suicide Tourists")

Ms. MARY EWERT: Can I get a big kiss?

Mr. EWERT: Of course.

Ms. EWERT: Okay, I love you.

Mr. EWERT: I love you, sweetheart, so much.

Ms. EWERT: Have a safe journey, and I'll see you some time.

Unidentified Man #2: Ready? Check the light's timer.

Mr. EWERT: I'm ready to activate.

Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Ewert, if you drink this, you're going to die. Hm?

Mr. EWERT: Yes, sir.

STEWART: What conversations did you have with Craig about being there at the moment he died? And what kind of experience did you have personally and physically at that moment when you're standing there with a camera watching this man die?

Mr. ZARITSKY: Craig and I had discussed the film for several days in advance of the filming, and we had a firm agreement in advance that I would be permitted to film his death. But he always had the option that he could stop the cameras at any time, but chose not do so.

For me, all the emotion and all the trauma came later. Filmmakers are much - we have to be, especially documentary filmmakers, much like the airline pilots or surgeons, and we have to concentrate on what we're doing at the time. But the grief in the morning and the sorrow came later, immediately afterwards when we returned to the hotel in the privacy of our own hotel rooms, and it continues with me. So that this September 26th, which was the first anniversary of Craig's death, all those memories and all those feelings came flooding back, and I know that I will have September 26 as a significant day in my calendar for the rest of my life.

STEWART: What did you have to say to these people to convince them to let you invade probably one of the most intimate and difficult decisions they'd ever have to make?

Mr. ZARITSKY: Well, surprisingly, I had to say very little to convince him to do this. Both Craig and his wife Mary had been a long-time political and social activists in America. They had - well, Craig had started campaigning against the Vietnam War back in the '60s, and he and Mary had campaigned for pro-choice, for gay rights. And so they were very much, as I say, social activists.

And for Craig, this provided him with one last opportunity to fight for a cause that he believed in all his life, so I simply provided him with the opportunity and the vehicle to do this.

STEWART: Do you have a stand on this issue as a filmmaker. Is this an advocacy documentary or do you come to this completely objectively?

Mr. ZARITSKY: I, of course, had my personal views and I feel very strongly that people should have the right to die. I made a film 15 years ago in Holland on euthanasia in Holland call "An Appointment with Death," and came away from that experience convinced that people should have the right to die. And this latest film only reinforced my personal beliefs.

However, the film itself is, I think, objective in that it's designed to take an audience both pro and con into the experience of an assisted suicide to expose them to the experience of what it would be like if we were to contemplate doing the same here in America, similar to Oregon.

STEWART: Who are these people who run Dignitas? I mean, how does it support itself? Does it cost people money to go through this process?

Mr. ZARITSKY: Well, it's a charitable foundation that is self-supporting through membership fees that thousands of people around the world take out and pay an annual fee, you know, 99 percent of whom are paying those membership fees basically to support the cause, to support the work of Dignitas, and people who have no immediate plans to die. If you do want to use their services, you must send your medical records in advance to Dignitas, where a Swiss doctor will study those records.

And then, of course, when you go to Zurich, you have to meet with the doctor, and he has to, after his meeting with you, approve of your plans. And then he will write the prescription that you need to end your life. The cost for people for that service is around 4,500 Swiss franks, which is about the same as the costs of a funeral here in North America. It covers the cost only of the assisted suicide procedures and the cost of having a couple social workers who are there to help you, but also for crematorium cost and the cost of shipping your ashes back home.

STEWART: I'm curious. When people oppose you or confront you about the film, do they do so on moral or on religious grounds?

Mr. ZARITSKY: On both, but chiefly on religious grounds. I find that most of the opposition to assisted suicide and/or euthanasia comes from people who have strong religious beliefs to the contrary. And those views are to be respected, of course, but whether they should be imposed on the majority of the rest of us who feel otherwise - because polls consistently taken over in America or Canada, Western European nations consistently show support for assisted suicide and euthanasia, anywhere from 60 to 70 percent. So, in my view, a religious minority continuous to impose their views, as I say, on the majority.

STEWART: John, as a filmmaker, are you finished with this subject? Did this…

Mr. ZARITSKY: I hope so.

STEWART: Yeah?

Mr. ZARITSKY: It's the first time that I've ever returned at the same subject twice. I only did so because of the Terry Schiavo case, the case of a Florida woman and who's comatose and the criticism and opposition that her husband encountered when he tried to follow her wishes and have her life ended. And I myself was so personally sort of offended and even outraged by that case that it's the only reason I decided to return to the subject again.

STEWART: The name of the film is "The Suicide Tourist." Canadian filmmaker John Zaritsky. Thanks, John.

Mr. ZARITSKY: Thank you so much, Alison.

STEWART: "The Suicide Tourist" is played in film festivals in Canada and Amsterdam, and appeared on Canadian television. So far, it is not scheduled for a U.S. release. But if you'd like to see it, you can get a copy of the DVD from John Zaritsky's Web site. We'll post that link for you on our Web site, npr.org/bryantpark.

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