"My name is Cindy Cowan. I have late-stage ovarian cancer and I would like to have the choice in how I end my life."
Those words are spoken early in The Trouble with Dying (Vision TV, 10 p.m.), a terrific, thought-provoking new documentary about assisted suicide. Vision calls it "hard-hitting." It is also fair and moving and guaranteed to make you think and rethink your impressions about the issue.
Talking about death makes many of us uneasy. Understandably so, given the culture, the preoccupation with youthfulness, the firmness of our belief in what the health care system provides for us.
It's a matter of age, too. When we reach a certain point, death enters our lives. The passing of parents. The closeness we feel with friends and colleagues whose parents die. The diseases and symptoms that arrive with middle age. The terrible pain when a friend's or colleague's spouse dies suddenly. The sympathy we feel, not just for those who have lost someone, but also for those whose lives now revolve around tests, hospitals, treatments and doctor's appointments.
If we are lucky, we rarely observe the harshness of a slow and agonizing death. But not all of us are lucky that way.
The Trouble with Dying concentrates on two women who want to control the way they end their lives. What struck me was how these two women were so forceful on the subject. This isn't raised in the film, but it seems to me that women are much more emphatic in articulating that they own and control their bodies. There is a distinct echo of the abortion debate here.
Yet next, Dr. Will Johnston, chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C., is seen saying, "We're still talking about killing."
That issue aside, the program, nicely narrated by Christopher Plummer, treads carefully into an explosive subject. Apart from Cindy, we also meet Linda Jarrett, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and advocates for change in the laws governing end-of-life choices in Canada.
The personal perspectives offered by these two women enrich the program and any discussion of the issue. They are stripped of illusions, and strong. The documentary, produced by Bryan Woodruff and directed by Ken Simpson, doesn't brood on anger and heartbreak, grief and pain. Instead it presents the women's clarity of vision.
And then there are the experts and lobbyists. There's a rare interview with Dr. Richard MacDonald, senior medical adviser of the Final Exit Network. He points out that, as a society, we talk about death and dying in vague terms.
The difference between "assisted suicide" and "euthanasia" is discussed. Issues associated with palliative care are raised. Jarrett says: "I would rather not be alive than be in palliative care for a long period of time, living a half-life."
Sensitive topics emerge, especially the suggestion that Quebec's moves to legalize euthanasia are tied to the province's older population and the need to reduce health care costs. We are told, with some force, how some elderly people, faced with a terminal illness, choose violent suicide.
In the end, it's the two women, Cindy and Linda, whose voices are the most resonant and touching. We learn at the end that one of them died during the making of the doc. The final words spoken by Plummer are a question – "What choice will each of us make when faced with our own mortality?"
This fine program will require anyone who sees it to ponder that question seriously, away from the noise about the issue. And that is its strength.
Also airing tonight
A release about The Following (Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) says this: "Joe chooses a new target; Ryan is confronted with news of Claire's reappearance; Mandy makes a decision that could undo everything Joe's been working for." Me, I still like this series a lot. With the season finale coming on April 28, the pace has increased. The murder, mayhem and plot twists have been well handled. And at its core, the drama is still about the allure of killing, something we witness every day in news coverage.
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