When Sue Rodriguez first came to public attention through her court battle to have someone kill her, I felt there had to be more to her personal situation than we gleaned through the media.  It was difficult, however, to suggest that there was more than the quest of an attractive and articulate woman who argued her cause rationally and plausibly.  We all sympathized with her tragic circumstances and criticism seemed callous and uncharitable.

We saw the public Sue.  As a symbol for the right to die people she was perfect: a good looking, physically active young woman, mother of a young son, living a comfortable middle-class life in Victoria, B.C.  She had just separated from her husband when she was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), an incredibly nasty degenerative disease which gradually paralyses the body while leaving the mind alert.  Most of us could not imagine anything more ghastly.

Sue argued that it was her body.  She had contacted the ALS Society and rejected the option of palliative care services which would alleviate pain and help her manage the disease until the time of natural death.  She wanted the right to have an assisted suicide at the time and place of her choosing.

But a newly-published book about Sue shows that there were many more pressures behind the public façade than possibly even she consciously acknowledged.  Author Lisa Hobbs Birnie wrote Uncommon Will, the death and life of Sue Rodriguez” at Sue’s request and she is credited as co-author.

This portrait of Sue Rodriguez shows a strong but lonely woman.  She had an intense need to be in control of all aspects of her life, the thought that she would eventually become totally dependent on others was completely unacceptable to her.  She insisted that her desire for assisted suicide was hers alone, but she acknowledged that it was John Hofsess of the Right to Die society who suggested that she make it public through the courts.  Hobbs Birnie describes their first meeting:

“When Sue met with John Hofsess, she was totally frustrated, not knowing where to turn for help in arranging her own demise at a time of her own choosing.  Hofsess, with his media background, likely saw this calm, attractive woman as a potential star, the perfect vehicle for the long-awaited opportunity to promulgate his own beliefs.”

Sue’s self-esteem and determination were bolstered by the media attention she received.  But media image and reality were at odds.  Says Hobbs Birnie,

“Her public image was that of a good-looking, determined woman with a handsome, professional husband, an excellent address and prestigious legal and political support for her cause.  This picture was partly true.  At the same time it was essentially false: it projected a powerful assumption that this woman’s private life would be rich in love and support.”

Although Henry, her husband, had returned home after her ALS diagnosis, they could not repair their severed relationship to any degree.  Sue’s mother and siblings felt helpless and frozen out by the many professionals (at one time, she counted 18 virtual strangers involved in her care) surrounding her.  In all, Sue had no close personal relationships to sustain and nourish her.  Would that have set Sue on a different path?

When Hobbs Birnie and Sue met for the last time, Hobbs Birnie asks, “’And you, if you were surrounded by love, by a family that hugged and kissed you and brought hot soup, and a husband who held you precious, brought you flowers, rubbed your back; Sweet Suzie, would you now be doing this?’

She replies with her usual honesty and integrity: ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’  Each word was emphatic: I…don’t…know.’”

Uncommon Will gives us a valuable insight into the motivation behind the first woman in Canada to ask the courts for the legal right to have someone kill her.  Unfortunately, it also contains some completely false information about a pro-life presentation before parliament, interpreting it as an attack on Sue Rodriguez.  It was not, and I will tell you about it in next month’s column.


Uncommon Will, the death and life of Sue Rodriguez, by Lisa Hobbs Birnie and Sue Rodriguez, published by MacMillan Canada, 1994