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Right to die scares vulnerable

What are safeguards to protect disabled if assisted suicide legal?

Susan Griffiths could have slipped out of the country and kept her assisted suicide a closely guarded secret. Instead, the 72-year-old grandmother wrote a letter to MPs, imploring them to allow terminally ill Canadians the "peaceful and painless end" she seeks.

Griffiths has a rare, incurable brain disorder. There is no treatment for multiple system atrophy. She has already lost her fine motor control. As time passes, she won't be able to perform basic bodily functions without assistance. She considers the illness an extended life sentence.

Susan Griffiths, who is terminally ill, believes Canadians should have the right to an assisted suicide. She travelled to Switzerland Saturday and expects to have an assisted suicide by the end of the month.


Susan Griffiths, who is terminally ill, believes Canadians should have the right to an assisted suicide. She travelled to Switzerland Saturday and expects to have an assisted suicide by the end of the month. Photo Store

Laurie Beachell of the Council of Canadian with Disabilities (right) visits with Ron Wall.


Laurie Beachell of the Council of Canadian with Disabilities (right) visits with Ron Wall. Photo Store

The vivacious Griffiths left Winnipeg for Zurich Saturday morning. She will die at an assisted-suicide clinic there before month's end. Her life will be over two or more years earlier than it might have if a Canadian doctor could help her die at home. Griffiths left Canada while she was still able to travel, and capable of picking up the drink that will lead to her death.

"It is my body, my life," she said in the days before her departure. "No one should tell me I have to live like this or die in misery."

Her public stance further forces the assisted-suicide debate into the spotlight. Like ALS sufferer Sue Rodriguez before her, Griffiths is an immensely likeable woman making a passionate plea to have her suffering end.

But changes to Canada's laws are bitterly opposed in some quarters. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities is fighting the legalization of assisted suicide. National co-ordinator Laurie Beachell says the very notion is threatening to people with disabilities.

The group initially supported Rodriguez, who lost her Supreme Court battle in 1993 but ended her life in 1994. They changed their stance after Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer murdered his severely disabled daughter, Tracy. Latimer argued he wanted to end the 12-year-old's suffering.

"We watched what happened in debate around people with disabilities. The negative stereotypes about disabilities are so pervasive," Beachell says. "For everybody else we have suicide prevention. For us, we have assisted suicide. It's mind-boggling for our community."

Beachell says the "slippery slope" argument deserves recognition.

"We oppose because we don't know where's the line in the sand. We don't know where the safeguards will be put in to guard the vulnerable."

The council has taken a position in the case of B.C. resident Gloria Taylor. She had ALS and sought the right to have her physician end her life before she became incapacitated. Taylor won her first round when a British Columbia Supreme Court judge declared Canada's laws against physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional because they discriminate against the physically disabled. Taylor died last October.

Suicide in Canada is not illegal. Aiding, assisting, or counselling someone to commit suicide carries a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

The judge in Taylor's case ruled the law against assisted suicide denies physically disabled people the same rights as able-bodied people who can take their own lives.

Her ruling is now under appeal.

Wanda Morris, executive director of the Canadian organization Dying With Dignity, says they get about 600 calls a year about what they euphemistically call "hastening." She says she knows anecdotally that many terminally ill patients are quietly helped to die in hospitals.

Morris understands the concerns of the disabled community.

"There are definitely people with disabilities who have experienced discrimination in their health care in Canada," Morris says. "They get a kind of substandard tier of health care from time to time."

She says that does not negate the right of a terminally ill person to end her life: "We believe we can protect our vulnerable population."

Dying With Dignity offers information and support to the terminally ill and their families. They don't give out specific information in response to casual inquiries. Griffiths dealt with the organization and was accepted as a client, but says she felt the suggested method of death was not acceptable.

Beachell says it's important to realize many disabled people live with the sort of pain and indignities that lead some terminally ill to end their lives.

"It's a little insulting to our community, really. They need assistance for the most basic things but they still work, they're still productive," says Beachell.

Susan Griffiths maintains she should be able to choose how much anguish she can tolerate.

"I'm pretty private but I really feel pretty strongly we should be given an option in Canada. We're so smart in so many ways and so advanced and civilized. I'm so mystified this hasn't been done before."


Columnist Lindor Reynolds and photojournalist Ruth Bonneville were with Susan Griffiths and her family during her last week in Winnipeg. Read Saturday's FYI for the full story of Griffiths' decision to die and the anguish that led her there.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 A3

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