Assisted suicide advocate honours 'trailblazer' for high court victory

VANCOUVER - An advocate for doctor-assisted suicide is celebrating a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision on doctor-assisted suicide by remembering the British Columbia woman whose cause he championed more than 20 years ago, when she took her dying breath.

Terminally ill Victoria-area resident Sue Rodriguez chose Feb. 12, 1994 to end her life with the help of an anonymous physician.

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Then-federal New Democrat Svend Robinson joined her fight for assisted suicide and held Rodriguez as her heart stopped beating.

Robinson said Friday's high court decision granting all severely suffering Canadians the legal right to make the same decision is a chance to honour Rodriguez for her efforts.

Rodriguez began her legal battles for assisted suicide after being diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, in 1991.

She said she wanted to make her own decision about her body, which was slowly shutting.

Robinson, who introduced a private members' bill on physician-assisted suicide in December 1992 and now lives in Geneva, said the court decision makes him proud to be Canadian.

"Sue would be just incredibly happy with the outcome of this decision," he said.

In 1993, the same court ruled 5-4 against Rodriguez, who by then was in a wheelchair, her speech halting but her resolve firmly intact.

"I was with her on Sept. 30, 1993 when we got the original Supreme Court of Canada decision," Robinson said. "It was painful because we lost narrowly but at the same time I remember vividly, both of us said, 'This is not the end of the journey.'"

"She put this issue on the national agenda with such courage that I want to honour her memory today as being the trailblazer that I think ultimately led us to this outcome," Robinson said.

Victoria lawyer, Chris Consadine, who represented the first Canadian to challenge the country's laws against assisted suicide said Rodriguez had no idea when she came to him that his grandmother died of the same illness that was killing her.

Consadine said he was a bit emotional when he awoke Friday to learn about the high court decision to allow terminally ill people to die with the help of a doctor — 22 years after his own court challenge paved the way for the historic ruling.

"I reflected on Sue Rodriguez and thought about what she stood for — her courage and conviction," Consadine said.

Rodriguez came to him around the end of 1992, about a year after doctors told her ALS would slowly kill her, and there was no cure.

Consadine said the courts needed time to reflect on assisted dying laws in Oregon and Washington, states that essentially adopted the protocols he was advocating in Rodriguez's case, adding those laws have worked without abuse.

Rodriguez also had palliative care but when she could no longer walk, talk or feed herself as her joints became dislocated, she knew it was time to get a doctor's help to end her life, Consadine said.

"She didn't want to go through that for herself, nor her family, including her then-eight-year-old son because the mental distress was going to be huge for her, as well as the physical distress and indignity."

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