Intended for healthcare professionals


Canadian woman ignores court to claim right to die

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 26 February 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:554
  1. J Roberts

    Sue Rodriguez, a 43 year old woman from British Columbia, committed suicide with the help of a doctor last week after fighting for the right to die for three years. Ms Rodriguez, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, challenged Canada's laws, which said that the state's interest in protecting her life was more powerful than any right she might claim to a “dignified death.”

    At the end of last year the Canadian Supreme Court said that it had no power to act unless parliament changed its laws. Ms Rodriguez had asked the high court: “If I cannot give consent to my own death then whose body is that?” Ultimately, she had the last word. A friend and member of parliament, Svend Robinson, said that Ms Rodriguez invited a doctor to her home, where the doctor assisted in the “peaceful” suicide. Robinson said that he witnessed her death but refused to reveal any details. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are still investigating her death and the roles of Robinson and the unidentified doctor.

    Rodriguez's plight had been closely watched by Canadians because she allowed a film crew to follow her during much of her illness. Partly as a result, recent polls have shown that up to 77% of Canadians favour doctors having the right to assist suicides. Even opponents were moved by Rodriguez. Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at the University of Minnesota, told the Washington Post that he has reconsidered his opposition. “Most people don't need a doctor to help them die,” he said. “But Sue Rodriguez was that rare category of person who really needs that kind of assistance.”

    Ethicists often question patients' sincerity about wanting to die, and whether they might change their minds at the last moment. Caplan said that Rodriguez displayed “authenticity.” She fought it through the appeals process. She never wavered, and now it looks like she's done it.”

    Elsewhere, the United States's most notable advocate of the right to die, Dr Jack Kevorkian, must stand trial for assisting the suicide of a 30 year old man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In Michigan, Judge Thomas Jackson disregarded three other judges, who had said that Michigan's ban on assisted suicide is unconstitutional.

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