Ruth von Fuchs is the President of the Right to Die Society of Canada. Here we talk about her background, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Ruth von Fuchs: My parents had met in a church choir, and I attended Sunday School, singing “Jesus bids us shine, with a clear pure light / Like a little candle, burning in the night / In this world of darkness, so let us shine / You in your small corner, and I in mine.” The church was the United Church of Canada, very low in fire and brimstone, very high in social action. That part has stayed with me.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated, been an autodidact?
Von Fuchs: I had the kind of education that was typical for middle-class children in Canada in the 20th century – public school, high school, BA. For my BA I chose a program called Honours Philosophy and Psychology, which the University of Western Ontario had set up back in the days when those two disciplines were still friends. Since I was a candidate for the ministry (the United Church having been an early adopter with respect to the ordination of women), some people worried that the philosophy half of my program might cause me to lose my faith.
Surprise – it was the psychology half which did that. Psychology in those days (the 60s) was anxious to be seen as a science, and it skated very close to biology. The more I thought about the world of animals, the more I was struck by the way good and evil could be inextricably intertwined. When a lion catches a gazelle, for instance, the event is triumph and yummy lunch for the lion, but terror and agonizing death for the gazelle. A deity who was both omnipotent and benevolent would not have created such a world. In English a very pithy phrasing of this idea is possible: “If God is God, He is not good; if He is good, He is not God.”
After I decided not to be a minister I thought of becoming a philosophy professor and enrolled in an M.Phil program at the University of Toronto. But when I realized that the only jobs were going to be in the hinterland, the wind went out of my sails. U of T gave me an MA out of kindness because I had taken so many courses. Finally, I followed in the footsteps of a friend who had gone to Library School and had found a job she loved, without having to give up being a city girl.
Jacobsen: How did you come into the fray of euthanasia, right to die, dying with dignity, and medical assistance in dying?
Von Fuchs: There was no specific event. I just gradually became more and more aware that there was something which was certain to happen to every one of us and nobody was doing much to prepare for it, learn how to handle it well, and so on. In my teens, I somehow learned about an American group called the Euthanasia Educational Council and I joined it, receiving their newsletters and slowly educating myself. Once I got into adulthood I began to be very busy with life – studying, working, falling in love, etc. – and my death-related activity went into low gear, though my interest remained strong.
Then around 1980, I read a newspaper announcement about some people who were starting a Canadian group on the subject. I attended the start-up meeting and became a member of the group, which had chosen the name Dying With Dignity. Their main focus was helping people to prepare, by writing living wills and appointing proxies.
In 1991 a second group, the Right to Die Society of Canada, was founded by John Hofsess in Victoria. It had quite an ambitious agenda and I signed up. I became one of the faces of the group because I lived in Toronto and could easily bike over to the CBC or host a camera crew at my home. Then in 2002, when John became less public, I assumed leadership of the group.
I enjoy writing, and people say I do it well, so I have been the editor of two Canadian newsletters: Free To Go, a quarterly serving all the right-to-die groups in Canada, and then the RTDSC Newsletter, whose final issue was published at the start of 2018.
Jacobsen: What are the main human rights linked to the right to die?
Von Fuchs: I do not believe in the concept of “natural rights” – I consider that rights are things which people in a certain society give to one another, by consensus (sometimes a slowly-building consensus). That said, I think that my society – 21st-century Canada — recognizes a right to be spared, as far as possible, from suffering brought on by factors beyond your control. It also recognizes that solitude often feels like punishment, so we should not run away from people who are dying, just because we don’t like confronting the situation.
Jacobsen: What tasks and responsibilities come along with the leadership position at Right to Die Society of Canada?
Von Fuchs: We are a pretty minimalist group, now. I maintain a website and a database (of e-mail and postal addresses which I use when I have something to send out to all the people who have expressed interest in our cause). I take telephone calls and respond to e-mails, from people who want to know “how to begin” or who would like some strategy advice. I write responses to calls for input (e.g. from government bodies), I complete questionnaires from researchers, I write letters for opinion pages of newspapers, and I attend conferences (sometimes making a presentation, and always learning something). Most of these activities I fund personally.
Jacobsen: I have immense gratitude and respect for librarians and former librarians. The quiet foot soldiers of the national intellect. You were a reference librarian. How does this set of skills help with the current human rights and, in fact, secular work through the Right to Die Society of Canada now?
Von Fuchs: I am easy to talk to! I think I was like this even before I became a reference librarian, but that job certainly kept my skills fresh. And I am good at finding things out, by both traditional and non-traditional methods.
Jacobsen: What have been some of the important legal and sociocultural wins for the right to die movement within Canadian society in the past?
Von Fuchs: The hands-down winner is the 2016 Supreme Court decision in the case known simply as “Carter”. We can now acknowledge the fact that for people in certain situations death is the best option, and we can help them achieve it instead of saying “You take it from here.”
Jacobsen: What are the current battlegrounds now?
Von Fuchs: The first law passed by the government (“C-14”) is very flawed. In several respects, it protects medical personnel more than sufferers. By requiring that help be given only when death is clearly within sight, it allows those who provide the help to tell themselves “I didn’t really do anything – the person was dying anyway.” And it requires sufferers to ease the minds of their helpers by requesting death one more time immediately before the helper’s hands move, even though research would almost certainly show that it is vanishingly rare for people in such circumstances to change their minds.
Jacobsen: Who have been the perennial enemies or opposition of the right to die movements? What have been the misrepresentations and, even potentially, outright lies stated about the right to die movement within Canada and other countries in which right to die has organizations and is, at least somewhat, an organized movement? What truths dispel those myths?
Von Fuchs: I could write a book. But here I will just say that running away from death (and its practitioners) is a long-established tradition and probably has deep roots in the human psyche. The death-control movement has much in common with the birth-control movement. The blind and cruel “life force” held sway in the early twentieth century – doctors who informed women about ways in which they could have sex without getting pregnant were entrapped and imprisoned, sometimes sentenced to hard labour. Now my local drugstore has a whole aisle labelled “Family Planning”. Here in the twenty-first century we are seeing doctors and many others telling people about ways in which they can die without suffering, not even suffering from fear or ostracism or abandonment.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Von Fuchs: We shall overcome!
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ruth.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.