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Ad campaign for assisted suicide banned from Canadian airwaves

An ad sponsored by the advocacy group Exit International promotes the right to choose death.

Opponents of assisted suicide have successfully lobbied to ban from Canadian airwaves a TV commercial promoting the right to choose death, and now they're taking aim at the controversial messenger.

Dr. Philip Nitschke, an Australian physician at the forefront of promoting doctor-assisted suicide in that country, planned an ad campaign in advance of presenting his "Safe Exit" workshops in Toronto, Vancouver and several U.S. cities next month.

The Television Bureau of Canada imposed the ban Friday, saying the spot, combined with Dr. Nitschke's open instruction on how to commit suicide, might break Canadian law.

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The self-regulating body of Canadian broadcasters said it was inundated by a "great volume of e-mails threatening, pleading and warning us not to approve your commercial, as doing so would be a violation of the Criminal Code."

In the presentations, the doctor counsels his audience on how to kill themselves painlessly and efficiently. The ad, sponsored by Dr. Nitschke's advocacy group, Exit International, doesn't go into such detail.

Instead, it depicts a sick man in pyjamas sitting on his bed, taking stock of the many decisions he's made in life, from his choice of haircut to his favourite make of car.

"What I didn't choose is being terminally ill. I didn't choose to starve to death because eating is like swallowing razor blades. I certainly didn't choose to watch my family go through it with me. I've made my final choice. I just need the government to listen," the man says before the screen fades to white.

Some of the angry e-mails opposing the commercial, which is in wide distribution online, were the result of a lobbying campaign by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, which is now trying to block Dr. Nitschke's speaking tour.

"I believe in free speech, but guys like [Dr.]Nitschke are dangerous and they don't care who dies from their ideology," Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the coalition, wrote in a blog entry exhorting members to join the lobbying effort.

"[Dr.]Nitschke is planning a North American tour starting on October 7. It is time that he get shut down."

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While Dr. Nitschke is better known in his home country, he has been the centre of smaller controversies in Canada before. Last fall, the Vancouver Public Library cancelled his presentation after concluding it could land in legal trouble.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Union decried the decision, saying the legal risk is slight and the library should stand for free speech. Dr. Nitschke gave his presentation at a Unitarian church, where he managed to avoid trouble.

Dr. Nitschke says Australia has similar laws to Canada and he has never been prosecuted. In Canada, it's illegal to "aid or abet" a person to commit suicide. He says his workshops are strictly informational.

"But I'm not silly enough to think [prosecution]couldn't happen if we are not careful," Dr. Nitschke said in an interview from his home in Darwin.

The physician, who helped four people kill themselves in 2002 when it was briefly legal in Australia's Northern Territory, says he doesn't buy the argument that the free flow of information or a public debate will suddenly cause people to kill themselves.

He pointed to Quebec's public hearings on euthanasia and assisted suicide, which he says are triggering a healthy and rare discussion.

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"The ban on the ad and the opposition to the presentation seems predicated on the idea that the only reason we remain on this planet is because we can't figure out a way out of it. It's a bizarre concept and extremely paternalistic."

The Toronto Public Library also barred his talk scheduled for Oct. 13. He will give his presentation at a Unitarian church in that city instead.

"It's an external rental, so we aren't directly involved, but our denomination has had a long history going back 40 years of advocating choice in acts of dying," said Rev. Shawn Newton of Toronto's First Unitarian Congregation. "But any legal vulnerability would be theirs."

Dr. Nitschke still hopes to install billboards in the two cities where he will give his presentation.

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