Last week, Sue Rodriguez lost one more option in a battle that has consumed much of what little time remains in her life. Since her diagnosis in August, 1991, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Rodriguez has been fighting for her right to choose the time of her own death, by suicide.
ALS—commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the baseball player who died of it in 1941—is a fatal disease of the nervous system that currently affects about 3,200 Canadians.
It causes body functions to shut down progressively, usually resulting in death about 2% years from the time of diagnosis. Rodriguez, whose life expectancy is now estimated to be between two and 13 months, has become so weak that she is physically incapable of committing suicide without help from a doctor.
Still, one way or another, Rodriguez maintains, she will pick the time of her death. But her hope that the courts will sanction her wishes and legalize doctor-assisted suicide suffered a setback last week when the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled 2 to 1 against her application. Still, she took heart in the dissenting judgment, by Chief Justice Allan McEachern, who wrote that the section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that ensures human dignity and individual control should protect her from “senseless physical and psychological suffering. ”
Rodriguez, 42, who lives near Victoria with her husband and eightyear-old son, is now turning to her final avenue of appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada, for permission to choose when to end her life. As she awaits confirmation of her next day in court, Rodriguez adjusts to a body that is failing her and a son who is expressing anger as he comes to understand that his time with his mother is strictly limited. At the same time, she says, a doctor has offered to help her take her life. In an interview with Associate Editor Nora Underwood last week, Rodriguez said that, as her options decrease, that offer at least provided one more. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: What are your feelings about the court’s decision? Is the battle starting to get you down?
Rodriguez: I feel a sense of being let down in that now I have to wait longer to find out if the Canadian judicial system will grant me
have been so many people who have suffered needlessly because of this issue never being addressed before.
Maclean’s: In the beginning, did you feel that at any time you could just quietly go off and end your life? Is that possible any more? Rodriguez: I still live in privacy in my home. I think that I don’t feel that will be jeopardized at all. If I go out, people recognize me but I think I do still have a sense of privacy in my life. I realize that after I’m gone it won’t be unnoticed, but certainly at the time of my death I hope it’s private. Maclean’s: Does this fight go beyond your own rights? Do you have the sense that you are helping to pave the way for others who are in comparable situations? Rodriguez: I believe so. If the court should rule on my side, this is a precedent-setting case. It should help people. There are many out there waiting to find out what the decision will be for me because they themselves are in a very sad predicament now. I get many letters and calls from people and have become aware of the fact that I’m not alone. Maclean’s: How are you feeling? When we spoke in November, you said that you were still really enjoying your life. Do you feel the same way now?
Rodriguez: I am getting weaker. I find that there is less that I can do. I’m not as mobile as I was a month ago and I tire easily. I still am enjoying parts of my life but I am beginning to feel more discomfort. I feel like my body is breaking down so it’s not as enjoyable as it was before, but I’m not depressed or anything like that. I’m waiting for spring to come. It feels like spring outside, and that always perks me up.
Maclean’s: How is your son dealing with all of this? Is he confused or does he understand that you won’t be with him forever?
Rodriguez: He is fine most of the time but he is displaying more anger, and my sense is that it’s frustrating for him to have someone else in the home all the time. The weaker I get, the more homemaker service I need, plus there are always lots of health-care professionals around during the day. I think he gets frustrated that life is not the same as before. He has a counsellor at school and has been through the hospice program here. I always make sure that he’s aware that it’s OK to talk about it.
Maclean’s: Has your resolve ever faltered? Rodriguez: Never. No. Not for a moment. It’s too important to me and I just have a sense that what I’m doing is right and it has been rewarding to me. □
my request, but I do feel that there is hope because of Chief Justice McEachern’s dissent in my favor. I just have to wait longer. The different rounds and having to go a third time again to court, not that I will be there personally this time, the wave of media attention, the anxiety of waiting for the decision— I don’t feel that it’s physically getting me down. I think it’s the disease that is. Maclean’s: Did you have any idea that the fight for your rights was going to explode into a huge national debate? Do you have any regrets about that?
Rodriguez: I had no idea. I knew that it would be controversial but I had no idea that so many people would be debating about it. It’s an issue that people have not looked at seriously enough in the past and judging by the letters I receive, it’s long overdue. There
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