New West man takes up mother’s cause
One evening last month, Michael Goodman left his New Westminster home to visit his 91-year-old mother Ruth at her Vancouver home.
His brother Dean, who had flown in from Toronto was there too, along with some of her friends.
They were there to say goodbye. They knew what was coming, but they couldn’t stay even though they desperately wanted to be there to hold her hand at the end. Ruth wanted them there, but she wouldn’t allow it because they’d be in trouble with the law if they were.
The next day, Feb. 2, Ruth took pentobarbital, a drug she had illegally imported from South America and died. In Canada, pentobarbital is used to euthanize animals but is not to be taken by humans.
Ruth Goodman was an independent woman long before it became fashionable. During the Second World War she was a ship welder and moved to Canada with her husband in 1966 to protest the Vietnam War and racism. Ruth grew up in New York City where she had two illegal abortions in which somebody led her blindfolded into a cab and never saw the face of those who performed the procedures.
“Those abortions influenced her decision to support the women’s movement and the right to choose,” says Michael. “The right to choose the end of your life is part of those rights. They’re closely aligned.”
It’s a cause Ruth continues to champion, as the story of her death catches the attention of media across the country.
Michael says his mother had seen many elderly friends suffer as their bodies deteriorated. They were alive, but their quality of life wasn’t worth living. But the law wouldn’t let them do anything about it.
Ruth developed Crohn’s disease, causing her to have 15 to 20 bowel movements daily.
What pushed her over the edge, says Michael, was waking up so disoriented she didn’t know where she was.
She was afraid she might get to a state where she wouldn’t be capable enough to end her life.
“About six months ago she started to tell me it was ‘my time’ and that she was going to go soon. Sadly, she basically told me she was going to end her own life. I could see her health deteriorating rapidly week by week,” says Michael. “Her and her women friends had a long-time pact they would be there to support each other in the end of their lives, and if they made a decision to end their lives they would be there to support each other in that decision.”
Michael says it’s tragic she died alone because of the legal implications for her family and friends.
“Shouldn’t the loved ones be able to be in the room to hold their hands as their loved ones pass? The way it is now anyone who could be the beneficiary of the estate could be treated as a suspect because they have motive. Yet, those are the same people that probably want to be there with their loved one with their passing.”
She left a note detailing what she had done and why.
“I am simply old, tired and becoming dependent, after a wonderful life of independence. People are allowed to choose the right time to terminate their animals’ lives and to be with them and provide assistance and comfort, right to the end. Surely, the least we can do is allow people the same right to choose how and when to end their lives,” she wrote. “I am writing this letter to advocate for a change in the law so that all will be able to make this choice.”
Fighting to change the law
As a director of the Farewell Foundation, New West resident Russel Ogden, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University criminologist, is fighting for those changes.
Ruth followed the foundation’s protocol in carrying out her mission. Many of its 280 members are like Ruth, not wanting to prolong the pain of a poor quality of life because of a chronic, but not terminal, illness. They’ve already had what they believe is a “completed life” and the alternative of death is more attractive than living.
“What they may have in front of them is a much longer period of suffering,” says Ogden, who has witnessed three suicides and been arrested and subpoenaed three times.
Like Ogden, Michael and his mother followed the Gloria Taylor case in which B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith ruled Canada’s law on doctor-assisted suicide was unconstitutional. While Taylor has since passed away, the ruling has been appealed. However, Taylor was terminally ill and the ruling applied only to those in that situation.
The Farewell Foundation wants Ottawa to deal with the issue on a broader basis and provide a system similar to Switzerland. The Swiss have not-for-profit organizations that help their members with their suicides under a protocol that demonstrates to the police and justice system that there are no selfish motives involved.
Ogden says the Dutch system, where the approach is mostly medical, produces consequences where many people who should be allowed to take their lives are deemed ineligible.
“The right to end one’s life is a fundamental human right,” says Ogden.
“And the obligation of society is to not impose a mandate of absolute prevention for those thinking about ending their lives, but instead to support such decisions by way of ensuring that any final decision is carefully and fully informed and it is not coerced and is voluntary. The paradox of supporting decisions around suicide that are informed, uncoerced and voluntary is that course of dialogue proves to be a very effective method for suicide intervention because it slows the process down and it encourages individuals to consider all of their options … and often people can often find ways to live longer and better.”
If Justice Smith’s ruling is upheld in the Gloria Taylor case, Ottawa has 12 months to change the law. But Ogden doesn’t see a government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper going as far as the foundation would like.
“I doubt the Harper regime will be generous at all in the scope [of its legislation],” Ogden says. “There are a lot of permissions being sought in [the Taylor ruling], and we can expect whatever the federal government comes up with the restrictions will be even greater.”
Michael Goodwin just wants to get the conversation going.
“Really the bottom line message is it’s time to get this out of the closet and talk about it. They’ve done surveys on it and about 80 per cent of the population agrees,” he says.
“As my mother put it, they shoot horses don’t they?”