Healthy Vancouver senior takes own life in bid to change right-to-die law

Ruth Goodman wanted to spur debate by taking her own life.

At 91 years old, living alone in her Vancouver home, she was not terminally ill. Although she suffered from Crohn’s disease, by most standards, for someone just nine years short of a century in age, she was healthy and happy.

She had just renewed her licence to drive in December. She loved her grandchildren, family and friends, and going to the library to read. She was not depressed, and she was thinking clearly.

But she had made her choice about 25 years ago, shortly after her husband died. Before her body wore out, before she became dependent, before she lost her ability to choose, she would commit suicide. And so in late January, while gathered with family in Vancouver, she told them, “It’s time to write the letter.”

“I am a 91-year-old woman who has decided to end my life in the very near future. I do not have a terminal illness; I am simply old, tired and becoming dependent, after a wonderful life of independence,” she wrote. “By the time people read this, I will have died. I am writing this letter to advocate for a change in the law so that all will be able to make this choice.”

On Feb. 2, after organizing her affairs and tidying up at home, Ruth Goodman took a lethal dose of a barbiturate she had obtained by herself in South America, and she died alone, her family says. At his mother’s request, Toronto architect Dean Goodman submitted her letter to a national newspaper.

In an interview Saturday, Dean Goodman talked about his mother’s life, and explained how she became increasingly committed to her choice.

Ruth Goodman was from New York, and was a lifelong activist for personal freedoms, her son said. The Goodmans moved to Vancouver from Seattle in 1966, in protest of the Vietnam War and racism in the United States.

In Vancouver Ruth Goodman worked at an abortion clinic and supported women’s rights, and she was actively involved in B.C. Civil Liberties Association causes. Later in life she joined the Australian right-to-die group, Death with Dignity.

Recently, Dean Goodman said his mother experienced more and more difficulty getting around her home and venturing outside.

“She said ‘I’ve had a great life,’ but she just got really tired,” Goodman said. “She saw her friends and family getting old and dying in horrible ways, and she became more and more convinced that this was right. It was really about freedom and rights.”

“She was adamant she would not move into a care home,” he added. “She was fiercely independent.”

Goodman said that when his mother informed her children of her intention to die, he asked if she was afraid, and she said she was not.

“It was very sad, but in a certain way, you can’t do anything but admire a person who believes in something so strongly,” he said.

The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits suicide assistance, and for decades B.C. has been at the forefront of challenges to the federal law. In June 2012 the B.C. Civil Liberties association and several terminally ill plaintiffs succeeded in partially defeating the ban, in a B.C Supreme Court ruling. The ruling said the federal law discriminates against those with disabilities, and doctors should be allowed to assist terminally ill patients to end their lives. The federal government will challenge the ruling in March, in B.C. Court of Appeal.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association litigation director Grace Pastine, who will argue the case against the federal government, said that since Ruth Goodman was not terminally ill or assisted in any way, the association would not have a legal position or opinion on her case. Pastine was asked if the issue of senior citizens seeking assistance to end their lives before losing independence could be a new horizon in right-to-die law.

“It is interesting,” Pastine said. “What I would say is, none of the countries in the world, or the U.S. states that have legislation permitting physician assisted dying, would allow for it, in this situation.”

Pastine said all jurisdictions that allow doctor-assisted deaths have stringent conditions and safeguards, such as requirements that patients must be suffering intolerably from terminal illnesses, and have no medical remedies available.

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