Behind every death there’s the narrative of a life – its hopes and fears, joys and sorrows – and how it ended. Was it sudden or protracted, peaceful or agonized? Wolfgang and Marianne Schmidt’s story is more poignant than most. A devoted couple who had survived war, displacement and the cancer death of a dear daughter, they had grown old and infirm after more than 70 years together.
At almost 91, Ms. Schmidt had a heart condition and advanced rheumatoid arthritis; her husband, who was approaching 90, was blind. “My time has come,” she told her son Tom earlier this year when she could no longer dress herself. For years, she had openly discussed her wish to die when living became intolerable.
“I can’t abandon her,” her husband told their son. “We are going to do this together because it is the way we have lived our lives.” And so, after a tender and emotional Easter dinner with their son and daughter-in-law, the Schmidts returned to their Toronto home and ended their lives in a joint suicide on April 2.
The Schmidts are part of a growing number of people whose stories are being shared in a grassroots movement to challenge the law against assisted suicide. It’s a dilemma that pits compassion against orthodoxy, the right to die against unwavering reverence for life, in a wrenching political choice that becomes more pressing as the population ages.
Before social activist Ruth Goodman ended her life in Vancouver in February, she gave her sons a letter and asked them to send it posthumously to this newspaper so she could publicly declare her belief in the right to die.
Susan Griffiths, a 72-year-old Winnipeg woman suffering from multiple systems atrophy, left Canada for a final visit with her family in Europe two weeks ago. Before going, Ms. Griffiths sent a letter to federal politicians petitioning for a change in the law, stirring the assisted suicide debate. On Thursday, The Canadian Press reported that a family friend said Ms. Griffiths died with the aid of a physician at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland.
More than two decades ago, in a poignant video message, Sue Rodriguez asked: “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” The Victoria woman who was diagnosed with ALS in 1991 publicly campaigned for the right to die in a legal challenge that was narrowly defeated at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1993. The issue is again before the courts and in the public consciousness. Last June, the B.C. Supreme Court declared the law against assisted suicide unconstitutional. The Canadian government challenged that decision at the B.C. Court of Appeal in March. A ruling is expected in the next few months, with the loser probably mounting a challenge at the Supreme Court of Canada.
Former NDP politician Svend Robinson was in the forefront of the Rodriguez challenge two decades ago and was at her side when she died in a medically assisted suicide on Feb. 12, 1994. “What was so powerful about Sue,” Mr. Robinson said in a telephone interview from his home in Geneva, where he works for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, was that “she put her own life right out there and that’s what grabbed people – the courage she showed.”
He still feels strongly that the law should be changed, and argues the best way to make that happen is for people to follow her example and send stories to their members of Parliament about the lengths to which their loved ones are willing to go to “hasten” their deaths. “You either have to have a death set in the shadows or, if you can afford it, you go to Zurich,” Mr. Robinson said of the current situation.
The Schmidts had considered going to Switzerland, the only jurisdiction that allows non-residents to die by assisted suicide, but she was too incapacitated to make the journey. “I had promised my parents that I would never put them in a home,” Mr. Schmidt said, adding that his wife had quit her job two years ago to care for them. “My parents’ brains were perfect, but their bodies were totally gone. They knew what they were doing – 100 per cent – and that’s why I am comfortable with their decision.”
Even though the couple expressed their intentions to neighbours and friends and left a joint suicide note, their home was considered a crime scene and surrounded with yellow police tape for four days before the coroner decided their deaths were suicides.
“The public is right ahead of the politicians on this one,” Mr. Robinson said. “People believe profoundly and strongly and overwhelmingly in what Sue was fighting for 20 years ago,” he said, recalling how strangers would applaud Ms. Rodriguez when they saw her riding her motorized wheelchair in the centre of Victoria.
“If anything, that is even stronger today.”
As the debate escalates, Mr. Robinson said two issues are key: the fears of people with disabilities, and the need for quality palliative care. There are “tremendously passionate, committed and wise people living with disabilities who argue strongly against any change in the law because they believe that somehow it diminishes their lives,” he said. “We have to be so careful to be respectful and listen to those people and bring them along with us.” Studies in other jurisdictions, including Oregon, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have demonstrated that legalizing assisted suicide has not led to a rash of mercy killings of vulnerable people.
The other imperative, according to Mr. Robinson, is to make it clear that people shouldn’t have to face an either/or choice between palliative care and assisted suicide. “Too often the debate gets reduced to that,” he said. “One of the things that Sue fought for, and I fought for as long as I was involved in public life, was the best possible palliative care, so that medically assisted dying would be an exceptional event.”
Having the legal avenue of assisted suicide, he said, means people will be able to live longer. “In a lot of cases you will never exercise it,” he said, but not having assisted suicide as an option, you may have to “take your own life way before you really want to.”
That was certainly true of Ms. Griffiths. The law needs changing, her daughter Naomi Griffiths told the Winnipeg Free Press, “so people don’t have to go to this length, the distance, the money, the fact that you can’t be in your own home, you can’t have your friends and family with you.”
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