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A lasting legacy of awareness

Griffiths' decision to end life abroad stirred discussion

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Although Susan Griffiths died peacefully Thursday in Switzerland, her decision to choose to die continues to have an impact on friends and lawmakers.

Surrounded by family members, Griffiths died just before 7 a.m. Thursday outside the Dignitas clinic in a garden, "which was a nice surprise," she told her close friend Jerri Hall.

Griffiths drank a sodium pentobarbital solution, a group of drugs administered in a glass of water that would cause her to fall into a coma and then paralyze her respiratory system, leading to death.

Wednesday night, Hall received a voice-mail message from Griffiths to say goodbye.

"She thanked Don and I for being in her life," Hall said. "We're the ones who were so privileged.

"She ended it with, 'I'm not afraid to die, I just appreciate your friendship tremendously.' "

Healthy and active at 72, Griffiths was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder that would have gradually resulted in the breakdown of her body and its functions.

Rather than suffer from years of pain until her death, Griffiths chose a physician-assisted suicide so she could die with dignity.

Physician-assisted suicides are illegal in Canada, so Griffiths went to the Dignitas clinic for the procedure in a little community outside Zurich.

Switzerland is the only country that allows physician-assisted suicide to non-residents.

But Griffiths wanted to make a change before she left. She wrote a letter to all members of Parliament, asking them to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Griffiths' decision caused a national debate, with many Canadians supporting Griffiths' cause as well as several people who reject the idea.

"Anybody can commit suicide, and that is an individual's prerogative. Our concern is when a third person enters the process," said Amy Hasbrouck of Toujours Vivant -- Not Dead Yet Canada, an organization of disability-rights activists who oppose euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide,

Griffiths had endured pain on a daily basis, but Hasbrouck said she thinks pain shouldn't be a deciding factor in choosing physician-assisted suicide.

"All pain can be remedied or at least treated, even in extreme cases," Hasbrouck said.

"The pain issue is kind of a red herring, but it's used often by the people who support assisted suicide to support their point."

Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, had opposed any law permitting doctor-assisted suicide, and he maintains that view after Griffiths' death.

"Until we're sure that safeguards are fully operational and able to protect the interests of the disabled and elderly, we would not support the change of the law," Beachell said.

"I'm hoping that there's going to be a grassroots effort of people who can lobby the government to change their minds," Hall said.

"We have a lot of choices about a lot of things, but not the end of our life."

cindy.chan@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A3

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