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Reblogged: The right to die with dignity

Johannesburg High Court

We need to change our law

By Lee-Anne Bruce and Sheena Swemmer

19 June 2019

Photo of court building
On Wednesday morning, Professor Sean Davison entered a plea deal with the state and will serve three years house arrest for whatever role he may have played in helping people to die to end their suffering. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

“I am ill with progressive cancer, which can only get worse. My quality of life can only deteriorate. I do not wish for a protracted, disagreeable death… I have decided to die by inaction. And would like to make the following requests. No resuscitation. No antibiotics. No attempts to make me eat.” These words are scrawled in a shaking hand as part of the living will of Dr Patricia Davison, dated September 2006.

Five weeks later, despite trying to starve herself and refusing medical treatment, the 85-year-old was still living in unbearable pain. Her son kept a diary recounting the many times she would beg him to help her end her life and take away her suffering. He later pled guilty to a charge of assisted suicide and was sentenced to five months house arrest by a court in New Zealand.

Professor Sean Davison faced similar charges in South Africa relating to the deaths of three other people including his friend Dr Anrich Burger. On Wednesday morning, Davison entered a plea deal with the state and will serve three years house arrest for whatever role he may have played in helping them end their suffering.

We still do not know the exact details of this role. What is clear, though, is that it should never have to come to this. No one should have to beg their loved ones to help them end their life; no one should feel compelled to assist their friends or family to do so. Instead, we need regulations in place to address this, to ensure that a person facing constant suffering can choose to approach a willing doctor to help them end their pain.

Thirteen countries and states around the world have legalised assisted dying in some form. Colombia, Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and seven US states have all recognised the importance of the right to die in honouring a person’s sense of autonomy and human dignity. South Africa has yet to do so.

As it stands, our law does not prevent anyone from ending their own life, but it does prevent them from seeking help to ensure that this end is quick, painless and certain. It also makes it impossible for them to end their lives in the presence of their loved ones for fear that the loved ones may face prosecution – just like Sean Davison.

Without access to assisted dying, there are limited options left for those who wish to end their suffering. They are forced to continue living in agony against their wishes, to spend the rest of their lives in a medically-induced coma, to die painfully by refusing food or treatment, or to end their own lives alone using more violent means – which they may be unwilling or unable to do. Many doctors consider being unable to respect their patients’ wishes to be in conflict with their own medical ethics.

To address this, we would need a change in our law – one that not only makes assisted dying lawful, but also regulates the practice. There would have to be strict safeguards in place to ensure that there is no abuse of this system. In other words, only competent adults who ask for help of their own free will should be considered, and they should be assessed by a number of medical professionals to ensure they are not being coerced in any way. Doctors are already asked to make complex decisions about their patients’ end of life care – including discontinuing treatment and respecting their choice to refuse food, which ultimately result in their patients’ deaths.

Everyone should have access to the highest possible standard of end-of-life care, including palliative care to manage their pain and other symptoms. But even the best palliative care cannot relieve all suffering from all people. Many patients do not get proper relief from pain medications or do not wish to live with their side effects. Even for those who do, palliative care cannot prevent them from suffering when they lose all bodily autonomy and feel they have no quality of life. Assisted dying should in no way replace palliative care, but should instead complement and extend it, recognising the value a person places on an end to their life and their suffering that they themselves deem dignified.

The final lines in Dr Patricia Davison’s living will read, “I would prefer as few people to know about this as possible… I would like to thank everyone for their help up till now. Sean, what would I have done without you!” Faced with his mother’s suffering, Sean Davison did what he could to help her end the pain. No-one should have to be in this position, but only a change in our laws can address this.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies will take every opportunity to argue for just such a change in our law. We have recently joined a case before the Johannesburg High Court, brought by two terminally ill people against the Minister of Health and Others.

Lee-Anne Bruce and Sheena Swemmer are based at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Wits University.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.


Published originally on GroundUp .


© 2019 GroundUp.
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13 Comments

  1. Ek stem saam. We need to have the right to die with dignity. Dankie hiervoor Hester.

  2. Het jy die boek van Sean Davison gelees? Daar is nou een van die provinsies/state in Australie wat dit nou ook wettig. Juis die week in die nuus gewees. Die tydperk wat my my in hosptaal was en sy tweekeer geopereer is om die “slegte” vleis/spiere te verwyder het haar op die ouderdom van 86 gebreek! Nou voel ek sommer weer hartseer oor die pyn en leiding wat sy moes deurmaak.

    • HesterLeyNel

      Die idee van vrye keuse oor jou eie lewe begin nou wêreldwyd toeneem. Daar is natuurlik ook diegene wat, meesal op religieuse gronde, dit met mag en mening teenstaan.

      • Dit is so. Tog moes ek bv ook besluit of my man se masjiene afgesit moes word of nie omdat hy breindood verklaar was. Dis ook n “genade” want ek kon netsowel besluit het om dit nie te doen nie. Wat sou dan gebeur het?

        • HesterLeyNel

          Dit moet ‘n baie moeilike besluit wees, Scrapy, want dis net menslik om altyd te dat ‘n wonderwerk sal gebeur. Maar een of ander tyd besef jy dat dit ‘n nodelose wag is.

        • Beslis!

  3. Ek weet nie heeltemal hoe om hieroor te voel nie. My mercyhart skeur in twee

    • HesterLeyNel

      Ek hoor wat jy sê, maar as ek myself in hierdie posisie probeer plaas, is daar net een antwoord.

  4. Ma dink die rede hoekom dit nog nie wettig gemaak is nie, is dat daar te veel geld gemaak word uit die lyding van ander. Sy sê ook dis onnodig dat mense moet ly en hoop sy word ook nie eendag aan die lewe gehou nie. Ons kan aan die slaap gemaak word as ons nie meer kan nie, so hoekom ook nie mense wat ly nie?

  5. Nilanjana Bose

    Thank you for posting this. We all need to take a long hard look at medical ethics and societal conventions. An obsessive attachment to prolonging life without taking into account the quality of it has meant huge suffering in many cases.

    • HesterLeyNel

      That is the unfortunate truth, Nila. Thank you for commenting.

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