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Dying on her own terms

"Whose body is this?" With those four words Sue Rodriguez single-handedly catapulted the right-to-die debate onto the public stage. After being diagnosed with the terminal disease ALS in 1991, Rodriguez took her fight all the way to the highest court in the land. She failed to get euthanasia and assisted suicide legalized in Canada. But Rodriguez's battle and her death in 1994 forced a crucial debate on this controversial topic.

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For Sue Rodriguez, small tasks such as putting on makeup are quickly becoming monumental chores, as shown in this CBC Television report. After coming to terms with the fact that ALS will reduce her to a drooling, paralysed shell of her former self, Sue Rodriguez decides to kill herself while life is still good; while she can still hug her son. But after making that personal decision, Rodriguez runs into a legal roadblock.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia are against the law in Canada. Under Section 241(b) of Canada's Criminal Code, anyone who aids a person in committing suicide can be jailed for up to 14 years. Suicide, by contrast, is legal. But since Rodriguez would be physically incapable of killing herself due to the nature of her disease, she would need assistance, thereby breaking the law.

Rodriguez feels she has a right to die with the help of a doctor at a time of her choosing. But she doesn't want to break the law. Determined to see her decision through, Rodriguez considers going to California. As shown in this TV report, the state of California is in the midst of voting on Proposition 161, a controversial bill seeking to legalize assisted suicide. When Proposition 161 is voted down, Rodriguez focuses on taking her fight before the B.C. Supreme Court.

Rodriguez will argue that section 241(b) of Canada's Criminal code violates her rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She will argue that she has the constitutional right to control her body.
. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are defined as deliberate actions taken to end or assist in ending the life of another person on compassionate grounds. The distinction lies in how the actual death occurs. Euthanasia is when the action of a third party intentionally causes the death of a patient such as through the administration of a lethal injection.

. Assisted suicide is when a third party provides the means necessary but the actual act causing death is carried out by the patient herself. For example if the patient pushes a button to trigger a lethal dose of drugs prepared by another, assisted suicide has occurred.

. In December 1995, Mary Jane Fogarty of Nova Scotia became the first person in Canada convicted of helping a friend commit suicide. She received a suspended sentence of three years of probation and 300 hours of community service.

. In June 1996, Dr. Maurice Genereux became the first doctor in Canada convicted of assisted suicide. He was charged with helping an AIDS patient in Toronto end his life. He was sentenced to two years less a day. He was also stripped of his licence to practice medicine.

. Rodriguez later said in her book Uncommon Will that her decision to commit suicide was made without fuss, hesitation or moral argument. She said that her physicality was a huge part of her identity: "If I cannot move my own body I have no life."
Medium: Television
Program: Prime Time News
Broadcast Date: Nov. 9, 1992
Guest(s): Chris Considine, John Hofsess, Sue Rodriguez
Reporter: Jerry Thompson
Duration: 14:04

Last updated: January 31, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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