Assisted suicide abroad puts families in legal limbo
Published Saturday, April 30, 2011 7:29AM PDT
Family and friends who travel to Switzerland to be with their loved ones as they commit assisted suicide enter legal limbo when they return home -- they may have committed a crime, but have no way of knowing if the police will come calling.
British Columbians Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson filed suit against the federal government this week for legal changes that would allow doctor-assisted suicide for people suffering from incurable diseases. As it stands, helping anyone commit suicide is a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Carter and Johnson say they've been afraid of prosecution for the last year, after travelling to Switzerland to be with Carter's 89-year-old mother Kay as she ended her life with the help of doctors at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich. The entire process cost them about $30,000.
Although doctor-assisted suicide is legal in several European countries and a handful of American states, only Switzerland allows non-residents to use the services of its clinics.
Despite Carter and Johnson's fears, police in Canada say they're turning a blind eye to cases like theirs. The Mounties do not generally investigate family members or friends who travel to Switzerland to help loved ones die, Sgt. Julie Gagnon told ctvbc.ca.
"The offence doesn't occur in Canada, so it's outside of our jurisdiction," she said by phone from the RCMP's Ottawa headquarters.
But one family's experience proves that isn't always the case.
Eric MacDonald flew to Zurich with his wife Elizabeth in 2007 to support her as she ended her life at the Dignitas clinic. Soon after he returned home to Nova Scotia, major crimes investigators were bringing him in for questioning.
‘She was not prepared to remain trapped in her body'
Elizabeth MacDonald was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, just two weeks after her 30th birthday.
"The disease itself was so rapid that by the end of 2003, she was permanently in a wheelchair," her husband Eric told ctvbc.ca.
Not long after her diagnosis, Elizabeth told her husband that when things got really bad, she wanted to end it all, rather than wait out the inevitable paralysis and helplessness of her disease. The couple had two friends afflicted by MS -- one was completely immobile, while the other had control of just his nose by the time he died.
"She had determined very early on that she was not prepared to remain trapped in her body," Eric said.
"Elizabeth was an extremely, extremely decisive person. When she made up her mind, she made it up forever."
In 2006, after a bad reaction to medication that shut down her liver and landed Elizabeth in the hospital for more than a month, she lost the ability to move from her wheelchair to the bed or the toilet. The muscle spasms brought on by the disease were getting worse, too.
"Occasionally, her legs were so bad it would throw her off the bed," Eric said. "She was in great pain all the time."
In September of 2006, the headstrong Elizabeth took matters into her own hands, overdosing on morphine and sleeping pills. The heady mixture put her to sleep for hours, but didn't kill her.
That's when she told Eric she wanted to travel to Switzerland, where she would be guaranteed the death she was longing for.
Elizabeth got in contact with Dignitas, one of two Swiss assisted-suicide clinics that admit non-residents. She made the arrangements herself, sending in page after page of documents.
The clinic gave her the green light, after reviewing a doctor's assessment and agreeing that her suffering was intolerable. Together, Elizabeth and the Swiss specialists set a date: June 8, 2007.
On the appointed day, Elizabeth and Eric visited a Zurich apartment, where a social worker and medical workers from Dignitas interviewed Elizabeth to make sure she really wanted to die. When they were satisfied she knew what she was doing, they gave her a lethal dose of the barbiturate Nembutal and left the room.
Eric turned on the stereo, playing Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars," the song Elizabeth had chosen as her last.
"I got onto the bed with her, and she lay in my arms as she died," Eric said.
The RCMP get involved
Elizabeth had planned her death down to the last detail, and when Eric returned home to Nova Scotia, all the funeral arrangements were taken care of.
She had even written her own obituary, which is where the problem started.
"She also wanted to express her thanks in her obituary to Dignitas," Eric said.
"I gather that somebody from the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, keeping their eyes open and their ears to the ground, noticed it."
The anti-euthanasia group's director Alex Schadenberg complained to the RCMP in an email, and the Southwest Nova Major Crimes Unit brought Eric in for questioning the same week he said goodbye to his wife at her funeral.
"When I went to see them, [the officer] seemed a pretty friendly guy.... He said, ‘I just want to know what happened,'" Eric said.
A week later, the same officer came knocking on his door with good news: investigators had found no reason to recommend charges.
Crown spokesman Neil McKenzie says that prosecutors in B.C. have never pursued charges against friends or family members who've travelled to Switzerland to help their loved ones die.
Eric says he wasn't scared by the police interest in his case, because he didn't believe he had broken the law or done anything wrong.
"But I resented deeply the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition's involvement in this," he said. "They're a rotten bunch."
Schadenderg defends his actions, despite being the target of heavy public criticism after the police investigation was publicized.
"A lot of people attacked me because I simply asked the question: Was the law broken? Mrs. MacDonald, was she pressured to go to Switzerland?" he told ctvbc.ca.
"Did I pressure them to lay charges? No."
He says he was satisfied with the outcome of the police investigation, but he's not happy with the RCMP policy of shying away from investigating people who travel with loved ones to Switzerland to watch them end their lives.
"I don't think it's a very smart policy, because how do we protect vulnerable people?" he said.
Schadenberg worries that seriously ill people -- particularly the elderly -- could be pressured into committing suicide by family members who consider them to be burdens.
"Police should always be doing due diligence," he said. "I'm not out for a witch hunt; I just want justice to be done."
Two lawsuits aim to change Canadian law
Schadenberg and Eric MacDonald will both be paying close attention to Carter and Johnson's lawsuit, filed on their behalf by the BC Civil Liberties Association. If the suit is successful, no Canadians will have to worry about prosecution for seeking suicide services in Switzerland.
Schadenberg says that the legal action is premature, and Canada should focus instead on care for the sick and elderly.
"Until Canada improves the level of care we're providing, we shouldn't be going in this direction," he said. "If the court strikes down the law, you can suffer or you can die: What choice is that?"
But Eric MacDonald sees things differently. He believes that if doctor-assisted suicide were permitted in Canada and she didn't face the daunting paperwork required to be accepted at Dignitas, Elizabeth would have waited at least another year before ending her life.
"She would have been able to wait until the last minute," Eric says. "We had a marvelous, wonderful marriage ... but not as much time as we would have liked."
Suicide is legal in Canada, and the organization Dying with Dignity will provide information to seriously and terminally ill people on how to end their lives. The group won't, however, actively help patients commit suicide.
"We're not interested in spending 14 years in prison," executive director Wanda Morris said.
The BCCLA suit is one of two filed this month in B.C. Supreme Court. The Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die filed a similar claim on Apr. 8.
Grace Pastine, litigation director for the BCCLA, told ctvbc.ca that the two claims are not connected in any way, but she'll be watching the Farewell Foundation suit closely.
"We'll be following it. We have been preparing our lawsuit for some time and we think that our lawsuit is the best vehicle for challenging the law," she said.