Elizabeth MacDonald died fighting for others' rights

Husband says he has 'nothing to fear' from police investigation

Published on July 1, 2007
FOND MEMORIES- Eric MacDonald and his daughter Kirsten reflect on better days with a photo of his wife Elizabeth (nee Lawrence) MacDonald who recently passed away through doctor-assisted suicide in Zurich, Switzerland. Fred Lawrence

Fred Lawrence

The Hants Journal


A retired Anglican priest said his wife decided to end her life with an accompanied suicide in Switzerland because she was undergoing suffering too great to bear, and feared being trapped inside her own body.

She hoped, however, that her death would be seen as a statement of her right -- and the right of anyone similarly placed -- to die when life became unendurable.

Her husband Eric, who accompanied his wife Elizabeth to Switzerland so that she could take her own life, does not understand why some people hold him responsible, and is puzzled as to why the police are investigating him for wrongdoing in the matter.

As a result from a complaint from the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) of Canada, Southwest Nova Major Crime Unit has launched an investigation to determine if Windsor resident Eric MacDonald assisted his terminally ill wife Elizabeth when she took her own life on June 8 at a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland.

Eric MacDonald told The Hants Journal that it was his wife’s wish that her story be told so that others suffering debilitating terminal illness may one day have the option available in Canada to legally end their suffering through legalized assisted suicide. “Elizabeth hoped the media would take up her story,” he said, “so that people would begin thinking seriously about an issue that concerns all Canadians. “She felt that it was unfair that she should have been forced to go half a world away in order to deliver herself from the pain and suffering that she endured,” MacDonald said, “and she hoped that, in future, any Canadian suffering from debilitating disability and pain would be able to deliver themselves in their own country surrounded by those they love.”

MacDonald noted, “Elizabeth said that, had she been able to do this in Canada she may well have postponed what she did. She would still be alive now, I’m convinced of that. But there was a very small window of opportunity while she was still able to travel Switzerland; after that she would have been trapped in her body, something she feared more than death itself.”

Overwhelmed by letters

MacDonald said he was “overwhelmed” by the letters and calls of support from across the country and beyond, but his frustration over comments made by the EPC, based in London Ontario, is very evident in his tone, and through the expression on his face. “What makes me cross is that these people (EPC) say they value people, but what they really value is an abstract thing they call being alive. They are not really concerned about people and their experiences. They think that they, and the government, have a right to say, ‘You must suffer and you must die this way.’ Why should anybody have the right to say that? It’s obscene,” MacDonald said.

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadenberg has told multiple media groups he was pleased that police were going to investigate. Scadenberg said counseling someone to commit suicide constitutes breaking the law, but MacDonald refutes any such clams. “It is completely ludicrous. I could not have counseled her to commit suicide. I wanted to hold onto her forever. “But anyone who knew Elizabeth knew that she was in control,” MacDonald said. “Once she made a decision, she would stick to it no matter what, and she did, till the end. She was remarkable and brave young woman,” he said. “I tried to convince her that there was still a life worth living but on September 6 (2006) she tried to kill herself and when this didn’t work, she began to make plans to go to Zurich.”

MacDonald said that he told her that he would accompany her if that is what she wished, and if she made all the arrangements.

MacDonald said he remembers well when Elizabeth first developed symptoms of MS, “It was exactly eight years, nine months and two days from the first symptoms until she died.”

MS was very aggressive

MacDonald said that Elizabeth’s MS was very aggressive. “She had her first symptom on September 6, 1998, and by November 18 of that year when she first saw her neurologist, she could no longer wear shoes with heels, and could not climb the stairs without holding onto the banister.”

MacDonald said his wife didn’t make the decision to end her life recently. During Christmas of 2002 Elizabeth told her husband and their two children that she thought it would be their last Christmas together. She lost all ability to walk shortly after that, Dec. 29, the couple’s wedding anniversary.

From that time until she died she was confined to a wheelchair. From the very beginning, she suffered debilitating pain.

MacDonald said he has nothing to hide from police and does not fear he will be charged. “I have done nothing wrong. Elizabeth made the decision, made all of the arrangements, right down to the last minute details and she asked me to travel with her to Switzerland and I told her that was least I could do.”

MacDonald said if the director of the EPC was concerned about Elizabeth he would have known right away that no one could counsel her. Elizabeth was in control of her own life. In fact, MacDonald said, “it’s all about choice and the exercising of control over one’s own living and dying. People like Schadenberg want to deny people control, no matter how much they suffer.”

Trapped for life

MacDonald said his wife’s was “terrified she would be trapped for the rest of her life in her body and being out of control.” For months MacDonald said his wife hadn’t been sleeping at all due to her fear that she would be trapped in her own body, unable to move and unable to communicate. “As soon as Dignitas gave her a provisional green light, she began to sleep better,” MacDonald said. “It was as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. But the closer she got to the time we went to Zurich she became elated. “For someone who lived life so intensely and with such vigor,” he noted, “it’s impossible to describe how she felt about the disease that robbed her of the best years of her life. Taking her own life was her way of being victorious over the disease that had crippled her.”

MacDonald said Canada needs to rethink its laws about assistance in dying. “If Elizabeth had had the chance to receive assistance in dying here in Canada, not only would many of her years since she was stricken with MS have been lived with less fear of the future, but she would still be alive today, since she would not have needed to act based simply on her ability to travel long distances. “If our laws permitted assistance in dying, Elizabeth would be alive today, I’m absolutely convinced of that,” MacDonald said.

People like Schadenberg and the EPA, according to MacDonald, are responsible for prolonging the suffering of people like Elizabeth. “It’s unintelligible and cruel and obscene,” he said, angrily. “What right has anyone to tell another person how they must die”? Latest polls taken in Canada indicate the majority of Canadians want changes to the law to allow physician-assisted suicide to become legal. (Sidebar) Elizabeth’s letter

The following is an excerpt from a letter Elizabeth wrote before her death: “By the time you read this I will be dead. This will tell you why.

Those who remember the reporting of the attack on the twin towers in New York on 9/11…will recall seeing pictures of people, having jumped, falling from the buildings. They jumped, presumably because the fate that awaited them was more horrible than falling to their deaths. They pre-empted the threat of being burned to death by jumping from the buildings. Would anyone now question their right to have made that decision? Would anyone accuse them of cowardice or impiety because they chose one way of dying over another? I suggest that no one would say something like this (though the idiocy of religion knows very few bounds).

Why then, should the same considerations not apply to me, and to others similarly situated? Why can I not preempt a more horrible fate, by choosing to die on my own terms, in a way and at a time of my own choosing?

It is high time that the medical associations and the government recognize that by denying people the right to an assisted death, in their own country, in their own homes, in their own beds, surrounded by the people they love, they have not only shortened the lives of many, but have made assisted dying available only to the few who can afford to travel to Switzerland to take advantage of that country’s greater humanity and compassion. I have only praise for Switzerland and for Ludwig Minelli and the people of Dignitas, who have made it possible for me to escape a fate worse than death.”

Elizabeth MacDonald, June 2007