Winnipeg woman seeks help to die in Europe

The Canadian government says it won't reopen the debate over assisted suicide, as a Winnipeg woman makes plans to die in Europe by the end of this month.

Assisted suicide is illegal in Canada, but legal in Switzerland

Susan Griffiths, a 72-year-old woman who suffers from multiple system atrophy, has left Winnipeg to carry out a planned assisted suicide in Europe. 2:34

The Canadian government says it won't reopen the debate over assisted suicide, as a Winnipeg woman makes plans to die in Europe by the end of this month.

Susan Griffiths, 72, has left loved ones and friends behind to carry out a planned assisted suicide.

"If it was legal [in Canada], I'd have done it now. Definitely. Months ago, probably," she said.

"I knew that my future was absolutely hopeless."

Griffiths has multiple system atrophy, a rare and debilitating disease with no cure. If left to run its course, the disease would likely leave her bedridden, blind and unable to walk or talk, she said.

"All your body parts break down and quit working," she said.

"You would have to have people do everything for you. Every function that a human needs, another person would have to do it. They'd have to feed you, take you to the bathroom — and it's horrific to me."

Already, Griffiths needs home care to help her dress and take "hundreds of pills" to manage her symptoms. She suffers from chronic pain and fatigue.

Assisted suicide illegal in Canada

Suicide is not illegal in Canada; it was stripped from the Criminal Code in 1972. But assisted suicide, in which someone helps commit the act, is still against the law.

A spokesman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told CBC News a majority of MPs voted in 2010 against amending the Criminal Code to permit assisted suicide in Canada under strict conditions.

"This is an emotional and divisive issue for many Canadians. 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," the spokesman said in an email Monday.

"A large majority of Parliamentarians ultimately voted not to change these laws in 2010 — we will respect that decision, and have no intention of reopening this debate."

But both British Columbia and Quebec's Supreme Courts are challenging the federal law, arguing it should fall under provincial jurisdiction.

In Switzerland, assisted suicide is legal. Dignitas, a non-profit organization just outside Zurich, assists people to do just that. That's where Griffiths hopes to end up before the end of the month.

Griffiths said she is disappointed to hear MPs won't reopen debate on either euthanasia or assisted suicide.

"I agree with the need to protect the weak and vulnerable, but give the sound-minded an option to choose," she wrote in an email.

"The Swiss, for example, have found a way of achieving both aims but with the right checks and balances people have an opportunity to make a determination of their own futures."

Disability activist opposes assisted suicide

Jim Derksen, a Winnipeg-based disability-rights activist who opposes legalizing assisted suicide for those living with disabilities, fears it could be the start of a slippery slope in which vulnerable or weak people are coaxed into the decision.  

"We don't want people with disabilities to qualify for assisted suicide," he said.

At the same time, Derksen acknowledges that decisions like Griffiths's are personal.

"I think the decision to live or not is a personal one, and I would not want to be judgmental for people who decide they do not want to live anymore," he said.

Though Griffiths's family plans to be at her side in Europe, they said it is a grim solution to her problem.

"This has been a hard, hard week," said her daughter, Natasha Griffiths. "I can't even let myself think about that day coming up."

Though Susan Griffiths said she is grieves the course her life has taken, she is adamant in her decision to die now.

"I don't like the impact it has on my children, but death will have an impact anyway," she said.

With files from the CBC's Donna Carreiro