Svend Robinson was the federal New Democrat Member of Parliament for Burnaby from 1979 to 2004. For the past decade he had a senior diplomatic post with The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is now the federal New Democrat candidate for the riding of Burnaby North-Seymour in British Columbia.
“The Court may have spoken, but I have the last word.”
This was Sue Rodriguez’s defiant response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision – a heartbreakingly close 5-4, issued on September 30, 1993 – denying her request to have a doctor legally help her end her life at the time of her choosing.
Sue, a single mother, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1991, at the age of 41. Assisted suicide was then illegal in Canada and everywhere except in Switzerland. In the Netherlands, doctors were not prosecuted provided they followed strict guidelines, even though it was officially illegal. The choices facing individuals who made the decision to end their life due to unbearable pain and suffering were to travel to Switzerland; to seek the assistance of a family member or friend, which often led to terrible results; to find a sympathetic doctor who would agree to provide the necessary medication under the guise of pain control; or to take their own life prematurely, while still possessing the capacity to do so. Sue dedicated her life following her diagnosis to doing everything in her power to change this cruel and inhumane law.
I had the incredible privilege of becoming a close friend and advocate for Sue and for our shared commitment to change the law. Her courage and eloquence captured the nation, and she had supporters across the country. When we would go out together for her favourite Chinese food in Victoria – Sue in her wheelchair with her radiant smile – people would spontaneously applaud her. When we went for walks on the Stanley Park seawall, people would come up to us and share deeply personal and moving stories about loved ones who had died. Not only did she take her case all the way to the Supreme Court, she also appeared as a witness before the House of Commons Justice Committee, with her powerful plea: “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?”
Sue also faced huge obstacles in her quest to change the law. The Canadian Medical Association strongly opposed any changes. Palliative care physicians across the country spoke out strongly against change, despite the reality that not even the best palliative care can relieve all pain and suffering. Sue often said that she did not want to be faced with the unbearable choice of taking medication that would make her a zombie or continuing to suffer. And the most challenging opposition to change came from some groups representing persons living with disabilities, who feared that this diminished respect for their lives. Nevertheless, Sue did have the support of the BC Coalition of People With Disabilities in her court challenge.
On February 12, 1994, 25 years ago this month, I held Sue in my arms as her life peacefully ended at the time of her choosing. Following Sue’s death, there was a huge outpouring of support for her plea to change the law. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien promised a free vote on the issue, and when Reform Party MPs took surveys in their constituencies, the results showed overwhelming support for a change in the law.
But sadly, the public were far ahead of the politicians. While some federal MPs were prepared to take on the issue – including Manitoba Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, and Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde – no federal government, Liberal or Conservative, was prepared to touch it. It was only when the case was again raised in the courts in 2012, by another B.C. woman living with ALS, Gloria Taylor, that B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith wrote a remarkable decision overturning the earlier precedent in Sue’s case, based on the evidence over the two decades since that decision had been handed down. In February, 2015, a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada, headed by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who had been one of the four dissenting judges in 1993, reversed that decision and held that the Criminal Code provisions denying a competent adult with a grievous and irremediable medical condition causing enduring suffering the right to consent to termination of life with physician assistance were unconstitutional.
While Sue would certainly have celebrated that great legal victory, which has given over 4,000 Canadians the choice that she was denied, I know that she would also be deeply concerned that the current government’s legislative response continues to fall far short of the objectives for which she fought with such passion and determination over 25 years ago. She would decry the denial of advance requests by persons suffering dementia, and the unduly restrictive “reasonable foreseeability” test, as well as the exclusion of mature minors and persons living with severe mental illness. So while we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Sue Rodriguez, let us also resolve to take up her fight for a law that reflects the compassion and dignity that were the hallmarks of her life.