Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Get end-of-life debate started

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Susan Griffiths has lived a full and rich life. Until recently, the 72-year-old Winnipegger was physically active, passionately engaged with her children and grandchildren. The onset of a debilitating, terminal disease has left her reliant on others to eat. The future looked, she said, intolerably "grim." Ms. Griffiths flew on Saturday to Switzerland, where she will drink a concoction to painlessly end her life.

She, like many Canadians, cannot reconcile the fact that to die painlessly and at a time of one's choosing requires spending a lot of money, collecting official documents and leaving the country. Assisted suicide is illegal in Canada, despite the fact surveys indicate most Canadians support it.

Carefully constructed laws in other countries have seen thousands of people choose a peaceful death. Dignitas, the Swiss organization aiding Ms. Griffiths, has helped more than 1,000 people die. Its website says it has helped many more thousands live, with assistance. Once people are assured they can choose the time of their death, often the pressure to end life is eased.

The government of Quebec and a superior court in British Columbia have recognized as inhumane the banning of assisted suicide. Quebec is planning to permit assisted suicide where an individual is close to death and unable to endure the suffering. B.C.'s Supreme Court has ruled denying an individual the right to assisted suicide is unconstitutional. Canada's law may well be decided at the Supreme Court of Canada.

The complex issue, though, deserves broad discussion among Canadians. Disability groups legitimately fear legal assisted suicide would present a risk, for example, that some people will seek to end their lives under coercion.

Canada's physicians say that until the palliative care system is properly funded and operated, until more is known about what influences a decision to kill oneself, the assisted-suicide debate is ill-informed.

Ms. Griffiths, a thoughtful woman, wrote to all MPs in hopes of changing the law. She is able, with the strength left to a body failing to multiple system atrophy, to choose a death to reflect her independent, dignified life.

The Supreme Court will render its judgment about whether an outright ban is constitutional, which might change the law. It is high time to launch discussion and research that permits Canadians to help frame legislation to protect the vulnerable and rights of others. Susan Griffiths made exquisitely clear her death was intrinsic to her sense of dignity, something most Canadians would understand profoundly.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 A8

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