Assisted suicide debate reignited with death of Canadian in Switzerland
The death of a Canadian woman who fought to end her life with the assistance of a doctors in Switzerland is once again reigniting the difficult debate about assisted suicide, prompting questions about whether it’s time for the federal government to revisit the issue.
Susan Griffiths, 72, died peacefully Thursday with family members by her side, at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland.
The Manitoba woman had been suffering for the last two years from a disease called multiple system atrophy, a degenerative and fatal condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson's. Griffiths was losing her ability to control her movements and her bodily functions and was in constant pain.
In interviews before her death with a number of media outlets, she said she hated the pain and dreaded the prospect of becoming completely dependent on others while she slowly died.
Though suicide is not illegal in Canada, helping someone to bring about their own death is. So Griffiths enlisted the help of Dignitas, a non-profit group in Switzerland that offers end-of-life assistance to the terminally ill.
Françoise Hébert of Dying With Dignity, a Canadian group working to expand end-of-life choices, says it’s unfortunate that Griffiths had to travel halfway around the world to find the painless and certain death that she wanted.
It’s also unfortunate that Griffiths had to choose to die now even though she would have preferred to live longer.
“She had a terrible disease and it was going to get worse. So she had to go to Switzerland sooner than she would have liked because she had to be well enough,” Hebert told CTV’s Canada AM Friday.
“She said in one interview she would have preferred to live maybe two or three years longer. And so because of the fact that she couldn’t have assistance with dying in Canada, she had no option.”
Hebert says it appears Griffiths was firm in her carefully-considered decision to travel to Switzerland.
“It’s never anybody’s first choice. Most people want to die at home, surrounded by their family and friends,” Hebert said.
Before her death, Griffiths wrote in an email to The Canadian Press: "I sincerely hope that Canadian laws will change soon to allow individuals like myself to make end-of-life choices at home."
Hebert says the federal government would likely prefer not to revisit the issue of assisted suicide, but a case currently before the courts is likely going to compel them to do so anyway.
A British Columbia court considered the case of Gloria Taylor, who wanted to end her suffering from ALS ruled last year that Canada’s assisted suicide laws were unconstitutional. They agreed the ban on doctor-assisted suicide violated the Charter of Rights because it discriminated against people with disabilities, insofar as suicide is legal for people who are physically able to end their lives, but assisted suicide for debilitated patients is not.
The federal government appealed that decision before the B.C. Court of Appeal. During hearings in that appeal last month, federal lawyers argued that allowing doctor-assisted suicide would put vulnerable and disabled patients at risk of being coerced to kill themselves.
While a ruling on that case is expected later this year, Hebert expects the arguments will go all the way to the Supreme Court.
“The debate is on again. And it will last another three or four years,” Hebert said.
The top court has not examined this country's assisted-suicide ban since 1993, when the court upheld the law in a case involving Sue Rodriguez, who also suffered from ALS. She died the following year with the help of an unidentified doctor.
Amy Hasbrouck, a disability rights activist, defends Canada’s stance on assisted suicide. She worries about how changing the laws would affect the disabled, who she says are continually made to feel as though their lives are not worth living.
“When a person with a disability wants to commit suicide, everybody thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, because they’re suffering,’” she told Canada AM from Montreal.
“But when a non-disabled person wants to commit suicide, society mobilizes itself to prevent that suicide even to the point of curtailing their liberty by putting them in a psychiatric facility.
“And our concern is where that double standard comes from. And that double standard comes from an assumption that life with a disability is a fate worse than death.”