A documentary about fantasy writer Sir Terry Pratchett's quest to examine whether assisted suicide is the right decision for him as he battles Alzheimer's has sparked widespread debate online about the controversial issue and how it was portrayed.
The documentary, called "Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die" has been described as "harrowing," "disgraceful" "powerful," a romanticizing of a "conveyor belt towards death," "heartbreaking" and a "slippery moral slope."
The words, of course, depend on what side of the issue you fall. Still, by most accounts, the documentary aired by the BBCĀ in the U.K. was raw, real and intense.
And so are the reactions to it - particularly regarding a scene towards the end of the film in which hotel owner and millionaire Peter Smedley, who suffers from motor neuron disease, ends his own life.
The film shows Smedley, after consulting with his family, making the decision that he will end his life. In a blue house in Switzerland, with his wife by his side and the help of the Swiss group Dignitas, he says his final goodbyes, drinks two drug concoctions, and quickly goes into a deep sleep, snoring, before he stops breathing.
Most who watched the show knew they were going to see a man die - it had been publicized.
"No one was going to be tuning in expecting a barrel of laughs," Metro U.K. staffer Keith Watson wrote. "We were about to watch a man die."
"We knew that if we wanted this film to be entirely honest about assisted dying then it was important to show the whole process, including the death itself," director Charlie Russell wrote in a blog on the BBC website.
"When Peter, the man who dies on-camera in the film, agreed to let us record his end, the challenge was to film it respectfully, sensitively, but most of all truthfully."
"We don't romanticize it - there could be no fade to black before he drank the poison. It is up to you to decide whether his last moments are deeply moving, distressing, or rather ordinary. I suspect it is a little bit of each of these and, depending on your own family's experiences, so much more."
The BBC said they received nearly 900 complaints about the documentary from people in the U.K. The documentary cannot be viewed online in the U.S., but perhaps the biggest debate is raging online - where columnists, lawmakers, groups and regular people are weighing in to blast or cheer the BBC's work.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaf, one of the U.K.'s leading opponents of legalizing assisted suicide, told the South Wales Echo that the documentary showcased Smedley's death as if "he was on a conveyor belt." She found the documentary "worrying" because of how it injected itself into a major legislative debate.
Assisted suicide is illegal in U.K. but legal in Switzerland.
"A change in the law would, for the first time in this country, legalize killing people," she told the South Wales Echo. "When you change the law you donāt just change it for a small number of very clear-minded people, but you remove protection for lots of people who are very vulnerable, who can easily be made to feel a burden by their families and the care system."
On Twitter, many of those who watched the documentary praised it. Some said it was moving for showing the human side of terminal illnesses and the decisions families must make about how to move forward. A quick search on Twitter shows dramatic responses: That people had sobbed while watching it, been enraged about how it was handled. Some said they felt that everyone should have to watch it before they ever debated the issue again.
For others, the show was a shocking and disturbing display.Ā Nola Leach, CEO of the Christian social-policy charity CARE, was one of those people.
āI rather thought that we had moved on from the days when people gathered in crowds to watch other people die," Leach told the Christian Post. "That the BBC should facilitate this is deeply disturbing. One wonders whether the BBC has any interest in treating this subject impartially."
Even in the U.S., where physicians in Montana, Oregon and Washington can aid in assisted suicide, reaction was strong.
Chris Hampson, the Director of Foreign News for NBC, wrote for MSNBC about his experience watching the documentary. "I watched a man die on television last night. Not in some Hollywood crime mini-series, but for real."
Hampson, as many journalists have, said he has been around people who were about to die, or had died, but that this was different.
"This was the first time Iād been witness to the moment when a person passes from life to death," he wrote. "That it was by choice, made it even harder to watch. I admit to tears rolling down my face."
It's clear the documentary has brought about a debate and public discussion of the issue and life. "Choosing to die" misses the depth of lifeā, a Guardian column proclaimed.
The movie raises key questions about how a society handles death:Ā Does a person have the right to die when they wish to do so? And should they be able to enlist someone else to help them?
For Pratchett - the answer is still unclear. He doesn't know if he wants to die that way.
For him, the film was a way to show his frustration that he doesn't even have the option in the U.K. He also said he was "moved" by the death that was aired on TV - and the documentary only affirmed his support for assisted suicide.
"The incongruity of the situation overtakes you," he told NPR. " A man has died - that's a bad thing; but he wanted to die - that's a good thing."