Assisted suicide debate reignites; minister stands firm

Canada's Justice Minister says he won't reopen the debate over assisted suicide despite the decision of Winnipegger Susan Griffiths to end her life via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

Woman chooses to die in Switzlerand, friends say they will continue to lobby

Susan Griffiths's talks with family Thursday, moments before dying by assisted suicide in a garden in Zurich, Switzerland. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Canada’s Justice Minister says he won’t reopen the debate over assisted suicide despite the decision of Winnipegger Susan Griffiths to end her life via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

Griffiths legally ended her life with help from medical professionals just outside of Zurich on Thursday.

Close friend Cindy Rublee was with Griffiths in her last moments.

"It is absolutely the way she wanted to go. This is how she imagined it would happen, and it’s exactly how it happened," said Rublee.

She said Griffiths legacy would be the lobbying she has inspired for the legalization of assisted suicide in Canada.

Assisted suicide is currently illegal in Canada but is legal in Switzerland. Griffiths said before she died she hoped the law would be changed.

Queen’s University medical ethics expert Udo Schuklenk has spoken out in support of Griffiths’ decision and said she should have been able to die in Canada.

Schuklenk said it’s time for Canada to review the assisted suicide legislation.

But Ruth Enns, a disability activist, doesn't want to see assisted suicide legalized in Canada. She said assisted suicide allows doctors to choose when their patients will die.

She added Canada is already a place where disabled people are devalued and doesn't believe any safeguards could help protect the vulnerable and disabled from being pushed to assisted suicide.

"I grieve for [Susan Griffiths], and my sympathies are with her family. But I also grieve more for the people she has harmed in the process," said Enns.

University of Manitoba ethicist Arthur Schafer doesn't believe there is evidence people will be harmed if assisted suicide is legalized.

"The autonomous liberty of Canadians to make their own end of life decisions can't be overriden unless there's good evidence that others are going to be endangered," said Schafer, who directs the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the U of M.

"There is no good evidence that the slope is slippery or that anyone else will be harmed."

But Minister Rob Nicholson said even though the issue is "emotional and divisive" for many Canadians, he has "no intention of reopening this debate."

He said in a written statement, "The laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly or people with disabilities."

Schafer thinks the Supreme Court will revisit the issue, whether Canada's justice minister wants to reopen the debate or not.

He said the current laws are unconstitutional, and politicians are afraid to confront the issue because of a small but vocal minority opposed to assisted suicide.

Conservative member of Parliament Shelly Glover said Parliament voted against allowing assisted suicide in 2010 because they believe they were "doing the right thing."

She said she understands the difficulty of the issue because her own daughter has terminal brain cancer.

"I’m deeply affected by this situation, which is why I voted against it in 2010," said Glover.

"I’m sorry for anyone who finds themselves in this position, but I believe we’re doing the right thing."

But the majority of Canadians may not agree. In 2011, Forum Research Canada found nearly 70 per cent of Canadians supported legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

Rublee said Griffiths' friends will continue to lobby on her behalf.