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Let's get serious and put aside the comedy, drama and reality TV shenanigans. Let's talk about life and death.

In June, the federal government's contentious assisted-dying bill became law. It was a compromise bill, really. A government statement said the legislation "strikes the right balance between personal autonomy for those seeking access to medically-assisted dying and protecting the vulnerable."

The issue causes considerable unease and tension. That's why the bill was so contentious. The value of life itself is at the heart of it and, simultaneously, the impulse to ease the suffering of others emerges instinctively to counter pious arguments about the sanctity of life.

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Road to Mercy (CBC, 9 p.m. Thursday, on FirstHand) is presented as a film that "documents Canada's journey into the furthest ethical frontier – a place where doctors are allowed to take a life and where society must decide on the circumstances under which they can."

But it is really a rumination on the issue, rather than a chronicle of what is happening. As such, it is very powerful, provocative and philosophical.

We meet patients who are seeking medically assisted death and the physicians who have agreed to do the assisting. We meet doctors who respect a patient's request to embrace assisted death but cannot provide it, worrying that if they do so, it will diminish their impetus to continue to provide care and offer options for treatment.

The doc also tackles the very difficult subject of assisted death for those suffering from severe psychiatric illness.

First, we meet Danielle Lacroix and Dr. Louis Roy. Lacroix is a 61-year-old mother with liver cancer who has been told that she has three months left to live. Roy is one of the few palliative doctors in Canada who says he will provide medical assistance in dying. He says he was initially against providing it, but after considerable thought, he asked himself the question, "Who am I to decide that you must live through that final phase?" Danielle is adamant, saying, "I don't want to live in the illusion that it [her illness] will get better."

The matter of "illusion" is crucial in the rumination about assisted dying. It is a human impulse to nourish the belief that things might get better and it is part of a doctor's training to offer solutions about treatment.

We meet an Edmonton man who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and fears dying in excruciating pain and humiliation. "It's not going to get better," he says. At the same time, his doctor, who does not want to offer assisted suicide, notes that her patient can slowly come to terms with the debilitating effects of the illness.

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In Belgium, we meet Amy De Schutter, a 29-year-old professional woman who has been suffering from mental illness since her teens. "I think I was suicidal since I was 13 or 14 years old," she says. De Schutter has attempted suicide several times and indulges in the self-harm of cutting. According to her, she has simply lost the will to battle her illness and she wants to die.

Her task is to persuade her psychiatrist to help her, and the doctor is deeply reluctant. The psychiatrist says, "She has so many talents and capacities." Then, we hear Amy's stark, terrible memories of being in isolated psychiatric care and we can only have deep and abiding sympathy for her wish to never repeat the experience. At the same time, we are being made aware of the matter of vulnerable people being put to death.

Throughout, our sort-of guide to the issues is Maureen Taylor, the former CBC reporter and widow of Dr. Donald Low, the Canadian infectious-disease expert who was vital in helping Toronto cope with the SARS crisis. Low made an impassioned plea for physician-assisted death before he died of brain cancer. Taylor then became the co-chair of an expert panel studying how the provinces cope with physician-assisted death following the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the matter.

Taylor is an articulate, thoughtful voice in a program about the most vexing question of our time: Who deserves to die when they choose to die, assisted by physicians?

Also airing

Pompeii's People

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(CBC, 8 p.m., on The Nature of Things) features David Suzuki saying "amazing!" many times. It is also one of the few Nature of Things programs to start with a warning about "mature content." The warning and the exclamations of "amazing!" are there because the program delves deep into the reality of life in Pompeii using the latest digital technology. The city of 12,000 people was covered in volcanic ash in 79 AD, leaving it frozen in time. But, we are informed, the amount of information that could be gleaned about life in the ancient Roman city was limited. Until now. So, "brick by brick and face by face," life in Pompeii is emerging in vivid detail. There was an elaborate traffic system of one-way streets. Fish sauce was a big industry and, as for the mature-subject warning, that's about the frescoes and "what people in Pompeii did for fun." Suzuki is informed, "The Romans had a different attitude to sex." He doesn't say "amazing!" but the program is that – a fascinating trip.

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