Susan Griffiths' death ignites assisted suicide debate in Canada

One of Susan Griffiths' dying wishes was that someday assisted suicide would be legalized in Canada. One year later, that hasn't happened. But at least, said her daughter Natasha, Canadians are now talking about it.
Susan Griffiths (centre) and her daughter Natasha Griffiths (right) are greeted at Dignitas in April 2013. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Just days before Susan Griffiths went to Switzerland to die, Dignitas received a gentleman caller from Italy.

Like Griffiths, he too, was seeking an assisted suicide. Like Griffiths, he too wanted to avoid a gruelling death from a terminal illness.

But in his case it proved to be a fatal folly because a later autopsy revealed his diagnosis was wrong. There had been no terminal illness.

"If everybody who had a terminal diagnosis banked on that terminal diagnosis and had assisted suicide, this … room would be virtually empty," said Amy Hasbrouck, director of a disability rights group called Toujours Vivant Not Dead Yet.

Dignitas is a facility that offers assisted suicides in Switzerland, where it is legal. (Keystone/Steffen Schmidt/Associated Press)
"There are a lot of people with disabilities who've outlived their diagnosis."

And that, Hasbrouck said, is one of many reasons she and other critics vehemently oppose legalizing assisted suicide in Canada.

"There's no reason for it," she said, adding that people who seek an assisted suicide don't really want to die but rather, they just want a better life.

"If people (really) want to die, they will die. They will arrange for that to happen," Hasbrouck said. "But people who are requesting assisted suicide are really asking for help."

It's an argument that Griffiths herself dismissed in the days leading to her death a year ago. The Winnipeg grandmother travelled to Dignitas, a facility that offers assisted suicides in Switzerland, where it is legal.

Right to the very end, she was adamant that death was what she wanted. That high profile decision renewed a passionate debate in Canada, where assisted suicide is illegal.

Since then, there's been some movement forward. Both B.C. and Quebec courts are taking it on and federally, Conservative MP Steven Fletcher introduced two bills in favour of legalizing it.

And then there's Dr. Ken Walker, aka "Ask The Doc", a longtime physician and nationally-syndicated columnist in Canada who just weeks ago became a paying member of Dignitas as an "insurance policy" in case he someday faces a debilitating disease.

Meanwhile, there have been more cases of assisted suicide at Dignitas, further fuelling the arguments for those opposed to it.

There's the recent case of Anne, a retired teacher from Great Britain who sought assisted suicide because she was simply tired of living in this high-tech world. Or the elderly Italian woman who sought it because her looks were fading. 

According to a recent study out of the University of Bern, about 16 per cent of those who seek assisted suicide at right-to-die organizations like Dignitas have no underlying medical condition.

As for those who have a medical condition and want assisted suicide to avoid the ravages of their illness, critics warn that unlike Griffiths, not all assisted suicides go smoothly. There are at least two incidents at Dignitas in which after drinking the fatal cocktail, clients took hours, instead of minutes, to die.

Then there is the recurring fear legalizing assisted suicide would put the more vulnerable members of society at risk by those who deem them an inconvenience to society. That's an argument others are quick to dismiss.

"The slippery slope theory has been around for years," said Dr. Ken Walker. "The opposition uses that, and that is wrong."

Walker said it's the disabled community who make this argument, despite the fact that they're the ones who should embrace the concept.

"They're the very ones who should be ones in favour of it, in case their disability becomes so severe that they need it," he said.

That logic, however, offers no comfort to those against assisted suicide and only further stokes their fears that the rest of society deems them as less deserving of a full life.

It's a fear that's now being tested in Great Britain. Just last summer, authorities launched an investigation into a mother and son, suspected of trying to coerce the father, who has dementia, into accessing an assisted suicide.

As for Griffiths, one of her dying wishes was that someday assisted suicide would be legalized here in Canada.

One year later, that hasn't happened. But at least, said her daughter Natasha, Canadians are talking about it.

"Mom would likely be a bit upset that we haven't progressed further," Natasha Griffiths says. "But at least it's a start."