Court case rekindles right-to-die debate: Elderly Victoria woman faces assisted suicide charges in controversial case

Thursday, March 20, 2003

DUNCAN, B.C. (CP) -- The elderly woman seated at the front of the courtroom taking notes Thursday is at the centre of a literally life-and- death issue.

Evelyn Martens, 72, is charged with helping two British Columbia women commit suicide, and her appearance in court is reinvigorating the debate over helping people end their lives.

A preliminary hearing to decide if there is enough evidence to send Martens to trial is being held in Duncan, about 60 kilometres north of Victoria. Evidence at the hearing is under a publication ban.

Martens has already chosen to be tried by a judge and jury if the case goes ahead. She believes assisted suicide is an issue that should be judged by the community and her peers.

Joining Martens in the courtroom were members of the undergound assisted-suicide movement, academics and relatives of the suicide victims.

"A Gallup poll says there's 80 per cent support for physician- assisted suicide in B.C. alone," Martens said outside court.

The charges against her could set legal precedents, even if she isn't committed to stand trial, she said.

"I hope it will help to change the law, so that every person has the right to choose their own destiny at the time of their choosing," Martens said.

Her lawyer, Catherine Tyhurst, said the issue of assisted suicide ultimately affects everybody because everybody dies some day.

"Yes, this certainly is a global issue," she said. "The issue of when people are hopelessly ill, in pain and dying whether or not there should be legislation permitting some form of controlled mechanism to allow those people to end their lives."

It is not an offence in Canada to commit suicide, but it is illegal to counsel or assist in a suicide. The maximum prison sentence is 14 years.

Martens was arrested last June 26 on a Vancouver Island highway shortly after disembarking from a ferry from Vancouver.

She is charged with aiding and counselling the suicides of former nun Monique Charest, 64, who died on Jan. 7, 2002, in Duncan, and teacher Leyanne Burchell, 52, who died last June in her Vancouver home.

Both women were believed to be terminally ill.

The Martens case has generated widespread support in the so-called right- to-die movement.

The Hemlock Society USA, an American right-to-die group, donated $5,000 to a Martens' defence fund.

Right-to-die groups across Canada have been asking their members to contribute money to aid her defence.

Martens supporters in the Duncan area are circulating a petition calling for a halt to the court case.

Activists in the right-to-die movement say hundreds of people die by assisted suicide each year in Canada and the United States.

Russel Ogden, a Vancouver criminologist who studies covert euthanasia, said it is difficult to estimate the number of assisted suicides because they are not documented or reported to official agencies.

He said there is a worldwide underground assisted-suicide movement that he calls the "deathing counterculture."

There are people in the movement who provide referrals, consultations and house calls for the terminally ill, Ogden said.

The assisted suicide movement has developed methods of suicide -- primarily helium gas and so-called plastic exit bags -- that cannot be detected, he said.

Martens's bail conditions include a prohibition against possessing helium or plastic tubing and using the Internet.

Police said following Martens's arrest they were examining all sudden- death files from the last five years.

Canada's right-to-die movement gained prominence in the early 1990s after the Supreme Court of Canada rejected a plea by Sue Rodriguez of Victoria for an assisted suicide.

Rodriguez, who had Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) committed suicide in 1994.

Federal NDP MP Svend Robinson said her death was an assisted suicide.