March 2, 2010
"I am dying. … There is no sense in trying to deny that fact," 59-year-old Craig Ewert says of his rapid deterioration just months after being diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disorder often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"I'm not tired of living," explains Ewert, a retired computer science professor. "I'm tired of the disease, but I'm not tired of living. And I still enjoy it enough that I'd like to continue. But the thing is that I really can't."
Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker John Zaritsky, The Suicide Tourist is a portrait of Ewert's final days as the Chicago native pursues a physician-assisted suicide in the one place where it's legal for foreigners to come to end their lives: Switzerland. With unique access to Dignitas, the Swiss nonprofit that has helped more than 1,000 people die since 1998, The Suicide Tourist follows Ewert as he debates the morality -- and confronts the reality -- of choosing to die before his disease further ravages his body, and he loses the option to die without unbearable suffering.
"At this point, I've got two choices," Ewert reasons. "If I go through with it, I die, as I must at some point. If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering on my family and then die -- possibly in a way that is considerably more stressful and painful than this way. So I've got death, and I've got suffering and death. You know, this makes a whole lot of sense to me."
Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland and several other countries, as well as in two U.S. states. But only Switzerland allows outsiders to come in to end their lives, leading to criticism about "suicide tourism." The Swiss government has recently countered by imposing greater restrictions on the sorts of cases Swiss doctors can approve for suicide, largely limiting it to those in the late stages of terminal illness who feel their lives have become unbearable -- the same standard that's in place in Oregon and Washington state.
"There are people who will look at this and say: 'No. Suicide is wrong. God has forbidden it. You cannot play God and take your own life.'" Craig Ewert anticipates some of the objections to the act he's preparing to carry out. "But you know what? This ventilator is playing God. If I had lived without access to technology, chances are I would be dead now."
As Ewert journeys through Switzerland and is wheeled into the Zurich apartment rented by Dignitas where he will drink the lethal sedative that will end his life, his wife, Mary, stands by his side. She is there to kiss him goodbye and wish him a "safe journey" as the medication takes hold and his eyes close for the final time. "In a sense, I lost Craig six months ago as he was," Mary Ewert explains. "[These last months] we probably had more of one another than maybe in the past. ... You know, there may have been some people who still think, well, I wouldn't have done that, or he shouldn't have done that, or something. But if they felt that way, they didn't say anything to me about it. … I [still] feel his presence. ..."