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TV Review: A timely look at a tough issue

A TIME TO DIE (RTE1): Alan Gilsenan's A Time to Die? was billed as a documentary that followed "Irish people who wish to end their lives by assisted death or euthanasia", but this only told half the story.

At the film's harrowing and (frequently) extraordinary core there were, indeed, Irish people who spoke of the considerable suffering they (or their loved ones) had endured.

We met Corkman John McCarthy who, with a mixture of rage and sorrow, told us: "I want to walk with my wife and hold her hand and grow into old age with her like we'd planned". His motor neuron disease had, however, chosen another debilitating path for him. "I'm going to die. And I'm going to die very unpleasantly", he said.

Then there was Tom Curran, whose partner Marie Fleming not featured was in the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis. Curran had persuaded Fleming not to make the trip to Dignitas (the Swiss assisted dying organisation) because he'd promised that, when the time came, he would help her to die in Ireland. This promise has now fuelled, Gilsenan said, "a landmark judicial challenge to the high court" regarding assisted suicide.

Gilsenan also spoke to John Allen, who suffers from a rare degenerative disease, and whose "prognosis is not good".

"I have investigated ways of ending my life", he admitted. "I'm debating at the moment which route to take".

As emotionally raw and compelling as those first-hand accounts were, the film didn't, and couldn't, really follow these stories beyond this introductory point.

John McCarthy, we were told early on, died of respiratory failure at home in Cork. Tom and Marie were awaiting the outcome of their high court challenge.

And John Allen was understandably reluctant because of possible legal ramifications to discuss his life-ending plans in any detail.

Gilsenan did interview one other MS sufferer, Margaret McEvoy, at her home in Kildare. Margaret and her husband Tony, we were told, "feel very differently to Tom and his partner Marie." "I wouldn't dream of assisted death", McEvoy said. "You don't interfere with life. It's a beautiful thing. So why interfere with it?" As the segment ended a voiceover told us: "Margaret passed away peacefully last Friday night".

The interview was clearly included to demonstrate that not all terminally ill people consider euthanasia an acceptable way to resolve their suffering.

Nothing controversial there.

What made it somewhat uncomfortable viewing, however, was a sense that Margaret's "tolerance" of her suffering (informed by religious conviction) was being subtly presented as a more noble and heroic choice than "resigning herself" to euthanasia.

This may have been unintentional, but it hinted at possible bias in a documentary that was, otherwise, admirably evenhanded and balanced.

When A Time to Die? shifted the focus away from personal stories of the terminally ill, to discussions of the moral, ethical, spiritual and legal issues surrounding euthanasia, it lost much of its potency.

Pro-life campaigner Berry Kiely spoke of the need for "principles which are non-negotiable". "I think the principle that it's wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being is one of those principles", she said, conveniently ignoring the fact that what was being discussed were instances of mature and rational people choosing to die and simply requiring assistance to make that happen. She did suggest that those whose suffering is "deep" and "real" have " a right to sedation. In order to no longer feel that suffering".

Given all we'd heard (from those that were suffering) about the need for dignity this "solution" sounded breathtakingly callous. As if forcing someone to spend their final days in a state of sedation was morally preferable to allowing them to end their lives as they saw fit (in a final act of autonomy).

Trying to do justice to a topic this enormous, emotive and divisive in a 60-minute documentary was always going to be a big ask, and A Time to Die? did feel bitty and fragmented at times. As if it was desperately trying to pack in as much as it could.

But it was still an hour of extraordinary moments, particularly when it allowed those who'd made the decision to die the space to speak for themselves.

A Time to Die? 4/5