Canadian woman dies with aid of doctor in Zurich
This June 17, 2009 file photo shows a house in Pfaeffikon, near Zurich, Switzerland, where the medically-assisted suicide organization Dignitas accompanies people, who willing to die, into death. (AP Photo/Keystone, Steffen Schmidt)
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, April 25, 2013 9:32AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 25, 2013 2:48PM EDT
WINNIPEG -- A Manitoba woman won her battle Thursday for the right to die on her own terms, with the help of a doctor, before she could be completely consumed by a disease that was robbing her of control over her body.
Susan Griffiths, 72, died peacefully with some family members by her side at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, a friend confirmed.
Switzerland is the only country that allows physician-assisted suicide for non-residents.
Griffiths did not go quietly, though. She went public with her story in the hope that Canada may change its laws.
"While it has been wonderful having some of my family around me, I am saddened that other close friends and family members are unable to be with me in my final days," she wrote in one of her final messages -- an email to The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
"I sincerely hope that Canadian laws will change soon to allow individuals like myself to make end-of-life choices at home."
Killing oneself is not illegal in Canada, but helping someone to commit suicide is against the law.
Griffiths was already losing strength from a deadly disease called multiple system atrophy, which has symptoms not unlike Parkinson's -- an ever-increasing loss of balance, movement and control of virtually every bodily function.
She was in pain and taking dozens of pills daily. She dreaded the prospect of no longer being able to lift her arms, clean herself and -- eventually -- swallow or breathe.
"The future is totally downhill and totally ghastly, and who on Earth wants to head that way when you have to eventually have everything done for you," Griffiths said in an interview earlier this month from her son's home in Germany.
Her children struggled to accept Griffith's decision, but supported her.
"She could have chosen to remain in Canada and to take her life using any number of awful methods," daughter Natasha Griffiths wrote in an email two weeks before her mother's death.
"She would have had to have undertaken this act completely on her own, however, with the added risk of failing in her attempt."
Canada's law banning doctor-assisted suicide is currently under review by the courts.
British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled last year that the law is unconstitutional. The federal government appealed the decision at a hearing last month before the B.C. Court of Appeal and a ruling is expected later this year.
The Quebec government has been looking at ways to allow the terminally ill to end their lives without the act being considered an assisted suicide under federal law.
There are also support groups that help inform people about options available to them -- even if it requires a trip overseas, as was the case with Griffiths.
Supporters of the current law, including many disability rights groups, say that allowing assisted suicide would make things hard on the disabled.
"We have not had the discussion in our society about safeguards to ... ensure that people who choose to do this are doing so of their own free will and not being encouraged by others, or not feeling that they're being a burden on others or the medical system," Laurie Beachell of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities said Thursday.
"We actually have members who are viewed so negatively that many others assume they'd be better off dead."
Natasha Griffiths does not buy the argument that a clear line cannot be drawn to protect the disabled.
"My mother ... made a careful, deliberate decision," she wrote.
"We have agreed as a family to speak publicly because we feel very strongly about what we consider to be a basic human right -- that of self determination."
It was also as a family that they prepared for Griffiths' death.
"Have just spent the most wonderful four days with my family in Zurich in preparation for my appointment with Dignitas," she said in the email the day before she died.
"We have spent the time sharing memories, giggles, tears while walking along the lakefront, sitting at cafes and having impromptu meals at our charming hotel," she wrote.
"I am not afraid and anticipate a peaceful, dignified and gentle death. I only wish it could take place in Canada."