Canadian who fought for assisted suicide dies in Zurich

Case has been followed closely in Canada as part of debate over current law

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND – Susan Griffiths from Winnipeg, age 72, died early Thursday morning 25 April in Zurich, in the gardens of Dignitas. Griffith’s desire to die and battle to get help to do so has been watched closely by Canadians as they debate their more stringent laws.

Griffiths, who was diagnosed with the rare disease multiple system atrophy, took her decision public and suffered the consequences of harsh criticism as the arguments for and against assisted suicide were stepped up. Lindor Reynolds, a Winnipeg journalist who knew her, wrote today,

“Susan’s story accelerated a national dialogue. Advocates for the disabled insist assisted suicide is a slippery slope threatening an already vulnerable community. In a poignant letter to the editor Wednesday, a senior adviser on disability issues for the province wrote of his reaction to her choice. He said he already lives with many of the disabilities Susan feared … Ethicist Arthur Schafer said the empirical evidence simply does not support the slippery-slope argument. The state of Oregon passed its Death With Dignity Act in 1994, legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Schafer said the law did not cause a run on assisted suicide, nor did it threaten the elderly or vulnerable. Only one-half of one per cent of deaths in Oregon have been assisted suicides since the act was passed.”

Switzerland reviewed, then tightened legal framework in 2011

Switzerland has come in for criticism for “suicide tourism” in the past, and in May 2011 citizens in Zurich went to the polls to vote on two proposals, one to ban and the other to limit assisted suicide to Zurich residents. Both were rejected in what was widely seen as a message sent to the federal government to allow assisted suicide, but to tighten the rules, which Bern did in June 2011. Canton Vaud voted later to allow assisted suicide in homes for the elderly, but with tight controls.

British media have covered the Zurich vote as part of ongoing coverage of suicide tourism, focusing on people going from the UK to Switzerland to die at one of the two main Zurich area clinics, Dignitas and Exit. Numbers are unconfirmed and vary widely, from 100 mentioned by the Telegraph to 800 on a waiting list mentioned by the Guardian in 2011.

Reports on Griffiths’s death by CBC, Winnipeg Free Press blog and earlier reports on her role in the national debate in The Globe & Mail