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Ruth Goodman, middle, spent her life fighting for social justice.
Ruth Goodman, middle, spent her life fighting for social justice.

A social activist’s ultimate legacy: advocating for the right to die Add to ...

Ruth Goodman died the way she lived – on her own terms. She campaigned for social justice all her adult life: by training as a welder to earn the same wages as men in wartime shipyards, by speaking out for freedom of expression during the McCarthy era, by picketing napalm manufacturers in Seattle during the Vietnam War and by challenging the abortion laws in Canada after she and her husband moved north to Vancouver with their young sons to evade the voracious American military draft.

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Why should life be prolonged for an aged social activist who believed the right to die was the ultimate human choice? That’s the question raised in the aftermath of Ms. Goodman’s death by her own hand and in her own bed on Feb. 2.

“People are allowed to choose the right time to terminate their animals’ lives and to be with them and provide assistance and comfort, right to the end. Surely, the least we can do is allow people the same right to choose how and when to end their lives,” she wrote in a suicide note made public by her now middle-aged sons, Vancouver mortgage funds manager Michael and Toronto architect Dean. They can’t remember a time when the right to die wasn’t a topic of conversation with the woman they lovingly called Mrs. Blunt. “She talked about it because she was working it out for herself. It wasn’t a simple decision to make,” her younger son, Dean, said over a cup of coffee in a midtown Toronto café.

Ms. Goodman wasn’t suffering from a terminal disease – other than life itself – but her declining health prompted her to act on the exit plan she had begun formulating decades earlier. At 91, she was suffering from incontinence and other messy complications of the Crohn’s disease she developed in her mid-80s: a badly sprained ankle kept her trapped on the second floor of her house, a series of small strokes sometimes left her disoriented and fearful.

“It was a life-affirming decision because life and death are part of the same package and she was saying, ‘This is my life and I get to choose,’ ” said Dean Goodman, who had noticed a steep decline in his mother’s health between Christmas and his final visit, in late January. By then his mother could barely walk or read and she complained of being in pain from the “top of my head to the bottom of my feet.” His brother concurred: “She was a fiercely independent woman. She wanted to be in control of her life and she didn’t want to have a horrible death.”

Not only did she arrange her own farewell when living became intolerable, she turned her death into a political campaign, advocating “for a change in the law so that all will be able to make this choice,” in a posthumous letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail.

What has surprised, even shocked, her sons is the way some people have misconstrued their mother’s death as a purely symbolic act by a healthy senior. “It was almost like she was a Buddhist monk and decided to throw gasoline on herself as a protest for the right to die,” Michael Goodman said, as he showed me around his mother’s East Vancouver duplex last month. “That wasn’t it at all.”

Ms. Goodman’s wish to push the conversation about assisted suicide further than medical help in dying for the grievously and terminally ill may be revisited next week. The federal government is challenging last year’s ruling by the B.C. Supreme Court that the law prohibiting assisted suicide, in specific and circumscribed conditions, is unconstitutional.

‘I want to go out dancing’

A quick, pain-free death is what most of us want, at some distant point in a nebulous future. Achieving that end can be a convoluted business, as Ms. Goodman’s death illustrates. Wait too long and you may be incapable of finding the means or the opportunity to end your own life. That is what Ms. Goodman feared: being confined to a hospital or nursing home, her cache of drugs confiscated, or her ability to communicate so impaired she couldn’t make her wishes known.

Instead, she celebrated her last birthday in December with family and friends and had her version of a last supper a few days before she died, with toasts, reminiscences and shared food. “I want to go out dancing,” Ms Goodman was fond of saying, and that’s what she did, metaphorically speaking.

Ms. Goodman’s upper duplex is modest – a comfortable living room with aqua-tints and décor dating from the 1960s, and a Cezanne print of the card players on one wall; a long dining table where she entertained family and friends; a small office; a sunny kitchen; and her bedroom. The double bed has a brightly coloured spread, the dresser top is crammed with family photos and pictures of friends, including Dorothy Stowe, one of the founders of Greenpeace. The sliding mirrored doors on the closet reflect the accoutrements of a life that had grown physically smaller. It reminds me of Hagar’s final room in The Stone Angel or the bedrooms in which I have visited ancient aunts and family friends, dear women who lived long and tough lives shaped by the Depression and the Second World War.

Her presence hovers as though she has momentarily slipped away – perhaps to the adjoining bathroom – an uneasy feeling that becomes more palpable as I agree to sit in the only chair, a rocker upholstered in pink velour. Mr. Goodman, who brings in a kitchen chair and sits by my feet, begins to cry as he talks about his mother’s long history of peace protests and anti-segregation marches and the hundreds of draft dodgers and deserters who used his parents’ home as a way station on the underground railroad from the United States. “The last time I saw her she was sitting in that chair,” he says, surprised by the expression of his grief. “I haven’t been that sad about it,” he explains, adding, “we had so much time to say goodbye.”

‘A great marriage and a great widowhood’

Born in 1921, Ruth Fisher grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of working-class Jews who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. At 19, she married Henry Goodman and went to Illinois, where they both worked in war-time shipyards, later moving across the country to Seattle. The desire to remake the world coursed through her veins. Her son, Dean, remembers with chagrin being hauled along at the age of 7 on a protest march outside a Boeing plant. Even worse, his mother was chomping on a corncob pipe in an attempt to quit smoking cigarettes.

Six years after the family arrived in Vancouver in the protest wave of “invisible” refugees from the U.S., Mr. Goodman died of heart disease. His 51-year-old wife was devastated. After a year of mourning, she began again, taking over the mortgage-brokerage business her husband, a contractor, had founded. “I had a great marriage and a great widowhood,” she liked to say, sloughing off any suggestion she should remarry. She had strong friendships with other politically active women and lots of interests, including the pro-choice movement, civil liberties and bridge. A “fantastic” player, according to Michael Goodman, she loved to chat over her cards about the right to die, while the rest of the foursome retorted that there was no shame in changing her mind.

Last visit was like a wake

“We had a pact that we would be there for each other,” says writer and social activist Ginny NiCarthy, 85, from her home in Seattle. The two women had met in the early 1950s in Seattle, drawn together by “common interests and a common willingness to make political action major parts of our lives,” including “the right to control their own bodies” from pregnancy to death.

And so, some 50 years later, when Ms. Goodman decided her time was near, Ms. NiCarthy visited to say goodbye. There were tears, laughter, reminiscences and gallows humour. It was like a wake, says Ms. NiCarthy, except the deceased was there taking part in the celebration.

Nobody is willing to admit being with Ms. Goodman at the end for fear of criminal prosecution for aiding a suicide. People will say she died peacefully and quickly after swallowing a combination of anti-nausea medication and a lethal dose of phenobarbital that had been acquired by a friend in Peru. Before falling asleep, she apparently said, “You have all been such incredible friends to me.”

The Goodmans were lucky. When the police arrived, they found Ms. Goodman’s body, the empty drug bottle on her bedside table, her suicide note and a manual opened to the section on how to end your life.

They could have treated her bedroom as a crime scene and arrested Ms. Goodman’s allies. That has happened a few times to criminologist Russel Ogden, a founding director of the Farewell Foundation, of which Ms. Goodman was a member. He says he wasn’t there; so does Michael Goodman, who feared his presence might speak to motive because he was a beneficiary of his mother’s modest will.

Perhaps that’s why he found it so haunting to be sitting again in her bedroom and speaking to a stranger, the way he once talked with his mother. “If my mother is in heaven, or wherever, I think she would love the fact that we are having this conversation because it was important to her,” he said. “Her legacy is fighting for social justice and this was her last fight.”

Maybe for Ms. Goodman, but for many others it is only the beginning, as baby boomers, having seen their parents die, make their own end-of-life decisions. “It’s a balance,” says Dean Goodman, between timing and health, a decision that he hopes he will “have the nerve” to make some day, as his mother did.

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