Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heartfelt plea for assisted suicide

But Tories won't reopen debate after bill defeated in 2010

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OTTAWA -- A Winnipeg woman's plea to Parliament to legalize assisted suicide comes three years after the House of Commons soundly rejected the idea.

All 308 MPs will receive a letter from Susan Griffiths, a 72-year-old grandmother who was diagnosed with the rare brain disorder, multiple system atrophy, in 2012. There is no cure or treatment.

Griffiths left for Switzerland Saturday where she will, in her own words, have a "peaceful and painless end." Switzerland is one of four countries in which assisted suicide is legal, and the only one that accepts out-of-country patients.

Her letter implores MPs to have a full debate and free vote to allow for assisted suicide in Canada.

"This is a personal and heartfelt request for your attention," Griffiths wrote.

She said assisted suicide isn't for everyone, and many will reject the idea, but she implores MPs to listen to her story.

"Please imagine yourself or a loved one in my position and support a free vote to give Canadians a right and privilege of choice in this most important and personal decision," she wrote.

However, Parliament rejected the idea in April 2010, defeating a private member's bill from Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde, by 228 votes to 59.

In Manitoba, Attorney General Andrew Swan said Monday Susan Griffiths' case will likely reopen the discussion of the right-to-die issue at the political level.

"It would be a matter for the federal government to consider," he said. "As I understand it, Ms. Griffiths has said she wants to raise the issue and I'm certain the federal government would take a serious look at it."

"The story that's in the newspaper obviously should get people thinking and should get people talking. I expect there will be people calling on the federal government to make changes to the law.

"Personally, I think a dialogue about this is useful."

Swan pointed out the province does not have a position on assisted suicide.

A spokeswoman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, however, said it is an emotional issue and not one the Tory government is going to tackle.

"A large majority of parliamentarians ultimately voted not to change these laws in 2010 -- we will respect that decision, and have no intention of reopening this debate," Julie Di Mambro said.

The federal bill would have allowed a doctor to assist a patient to "die with dignity" under certain conditions, including that the patient be at least 18 years old, suffering from a terminal illness, and makes at least two written requests to die, 10 days apart.

None of Manitoba's 14 MPs at the time supported the bill. Thirteen voted against it. Steven Fletcher abstained, saying he supports assisted suicide in certain circumstances but the bill itself was flawed.

Fletcher did not want to speak about Griffiths' case Monday, but said he still firmly believes "people need to be empowered to make the best decision for themselves."

Fletcher was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident in 1996, and has written and spoken about assisted suicide several times.

He said he believes the right resources and supports need to be in place to help people live meaningful lives, but said that after going through his accident he understands why certain people want to make a decision not to continue living.

"Whenever I think about (the time after my accident) I understand why Sue Rodriguez would want to be empowered to make the decision for themselves," Fletcher said.

He said it's unfortunate someone would have to choose to make that decision early in order to travel somewhere else to get an assisted suicide.

Fletcher expects the debate to occur again.

"As we go through this debate, I hope this is met with empathy, love, hope and mercy," he said.

Most of the MPs who voted for the assisted-suicide bill in 2010 were Bloc MPs and almost all were defeated in the 2011 election. Only a handful of MPs who supported the bill remain in the House.

B.C. NDP MP Jean Crowder was one of the few non-Bloc MPs to vote for Lalonde's bill. She said Monday the biggest issue for her is Canada needs to have a solid and mature debate about the subject.

"At some point, people should have a right to determine how their life will end," Crowder said.

Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin said the NDP caucus agonized over the issue, but he ultimately couldn't support it, and still wouldn't.

"If you're depressed, that can be treated. If you're in great pain, it can be relieved. If you are incapacitated, counselling may help," said Martin. "No, I can't in all good conscience support it."

Winnipeg Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux said his party doesn't have a position on the subject. His own views are that "there is a difference between assisting someone to commit suicide and assisting someone to die with dignity."

"We don't do enough on palliative care," said Lamoureux. "I think we should have stronger national standards."

 

-- with files from Bruce Owen

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:58 AM CDT: adds text of Griffiths' letter

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