Only a handful of people know the truth about how Sue Rodriguez died, but only one is talking and he is refusing to tell all he knows. In the absence of facts, the public is left with the impression that the last few days and hours of a terminally –ill woman’s life were managed more to create create a major media event than to meet her needs.
Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from ALS, died at her home on Vancouver Island on the afternoon of February 12, a date she had chosen to advance. None of her family or closest friends were present. Her lawyer, Chris Considering, who unsuccessfully argued her request to legalize assisted suicide through three levels of the courts, was not present and has refused any comment on the circumstances of her death.
The only eye witness account has come from MP Svend Robinson, who held a nationally –televised news conference on Valentine’s Day to describe his involvement in her death.
Robinson, a long-time euthanasia activist, became Rodriguez’s primary supporter after she parted company with John Hofsess and the Right to Die Society (Robinson also resigned his position as political consultant to the group in protest against Hofsess publishing unauthorized statements over Rodriguez’s name).
At his press conference, Robinson said that the timing had been arranged in January, the date chosen was convenient for both Robinson and an unnamed doctor. The only other person to know was Henry Rodriguez, Sue’s husband. Dr. Debra Braithwaite, a palliative care doctor who had been caring for Sue for some months, together with a family practician, said later that she had not known the date. She had spoken with Sue a couple of days before her death, and they had scheduled a visit for the following week. Braithwaite said that Sue was physically comfortable in the days leading up to her death, and not imminently dying.
Robinson says that Sue’s voice was failing and that she was often incomprehensible to those closest to her. On the morning of her death, they spoke for a couple of hours about the arrangements, and then did the same with an unnamed doctor.
Although Robinson refuses to divulge the method of death, he says, “Sue remained serene and calm through out and in total control. She faced her death with incredible courage and dignity. I held her in my arms. She peacefully lapsed into unconsciousness and stopped breathing approximately two hours later. The doctor then left.”
Robinson says he then called Dr. Debra Braithwaite who pronounced her patient deat. She then called the coroner. Robinson meanwhile was telephoning Rodriguez’s friends. She says he was clearly in control of the situation.
“Mr. Robinson’s conscience appeared clear,” said Braithwaite. He was collected and calm. He was clearly continuing the plan.” Just what that plan is remains to be seen.
Robinson called the RCMP once the coroner had been informed, and the focus of the first news stories reporting. Ms Rodriguez’s death was on Robinson as the key person under investigation. All that weekend, and again in his news conference the following Monday, Robinson refused to disclose the name of the doctor who he says was present during the death.
By February 15, the RCMP investigators were saying that Robinson does not appear to have committed a criminal offence, and admitted that it may be impossible to persuade him to divulge the name of the doctor unless he is ordered to testify under oath at a coroner’s court.
Although it is not a crime to commit suicide, it is an offence under the Criminal Code to aid or abet a suicide. A conviction could mean a 14-year prison sentence. Robinson says he has not broken the law, although he has retained Toronto layer Clayton Ruby to act for him should it become necessary.
Sergeant Wayne Squire of the Sidney RCMP detachment, investigating the death, said that “Mere presence at the scene of an offence is not enough to support a criminal charge. As long as he [Robinson] didn’t take an active role in the death, then we don’t see how he was involved.”
On February 16, Victoria coroner David Valentine announced that the pathologist conducting the autopsy could not determine the cause of death. The coroner’s office is now waiting for results of toxicology tests to see if drugs contributed to Rodriguez’s death. The results are expected within three to six weeks.
If the RCMP decides not to lay charges against Robinson, the B.C. Attorney General’s department may choose to appoint a special independent prosecutor to handle the case. This individual would evaluate whether a successful prosecution is likely and if a trial would be in the public interest.
Both Dr. Debra Braithwaite and Dr. Michael Downing, director of the Victoria Hospice Society, have called for the anonymous doctor involved to come forward.
“I have a problem with secret physicians who perform secret acts.” Dr. Braithwaite said at a news conference four days after Rodriguez’s death. “When you’re secret about things, you can’t be critiqued by your peers and the public. It would be better for everyone concerned if that physician came forward.”
Dr. Downing said that although Rodriguez’s condition had worsened, she was not close to death. “Sue was not in physical distress in the time leading to her death,” he said, adding that it is impossible to say how much longer she might have lived on her own.