Court rules on 'right to die' case

By admin
30 April 2015

The High Court in Pretoria is expected to rule on Thursday on whether a terminally ill man can get a doctor’s help to commit suicide.

The High Court in Pretoria ruled on whether a terminally ill man can get a doctor’s help to commit suicide.

Robin Stransham-Ford (65) a former advocate, was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in September 2013. A court found he can make the decision to end his life, a first for South Africa. "The applicant is entitled to be assisted by a medical practitioner either by the administration of a lethal agent or by providing the applicant with the necessary lethal agent to administer himself," Judge Hans Fabricius said in his ruling. “What must he do, get on top of a building and jump down into the street, [or] splatter his brains against a wall?” his lawyer HB Marais, seemingly frustrated with the opposition expressed to his client’s wishes, argued towards the end of proceedings on Wednesday.

'What must he do, get on top of a building and jump down into the street'

Stransham-Ford wanted Judge Hans Fabricius to hand down an order that would allow a doctor to give him drugs he would take himself to end his own life. If he is unable to administer them himself, the doctor must be allowed to do it, without fear of being prosecuted.

He argues that not being able to do so, and spend his last days in pain and suffering, infringes on his constitutional right to dignity.

Opposition

The justice and health ministers, Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA), and National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) are opposing the application.

Doctors for Life and Cause for Justice were admitted as friends of the court on Wednesday morning.

Adrian D’Oliveira, for Doctors for Life, handed to the court a draft order setting out the possible relief that could be granted to Stransham-Ford. HB Marais, for Stransham-Ford, and Harry van Bergen, for the HPCSA, both suggested changes they wanted Fabricius to incorporate.

Van Bergen wanted to ensure that any order would relate only to Stransham-Ford’s case, and wanted a line indicating that the proceedings could apply to “persons in the same situation” to be deleted.

The order also incorporates certain “safeguards”, such as that two doctors, one of them independent, would be involved.

Greta Engelbrecht, for human rights organisation Cause for Justice, said Stransham-Ford could not demand the right to take his own life with the help of a doctor, as his rights under the Constitution imposed on him obligations towards others and the state.

'Ripple effects'

“You cannot say ‘I am an island’,” she said, adding that the court had to consider the “ripple effects” of the case. She argued that he wanted to leave a legacy on the matter of assisted suicide.

“He understands precisely what the precedential nature of the case will be,” she said.

Marais argued that Stransham-Ford was not some kind of maverick, and that the ripple effect argument indicated there were others who wanted to make use of the same recourse.

He said the drafter order “would appear to be acceptable”.

It would protect any doctor involved from prosecution by the NDPP, or from disciplinary proceedings by the HPCSA.

Lesego Montsho, SC, for the justice minister, asked for the postponement to Thursday so she could discuss this with her superiors.

'Passive euthanasia'

Prof Willem Landman, a Dignity SA board member, said before proceedings began that “passive euthanasia”, which involves withdrawing treatment to allow someone to die, was legal.

“This is no different, from a logical and ethical point of view, from assisted dying. The outcome is the same.

“You want to alleviate pain throughout our life, but you abandon them at the end.”

He said while the application may not succeed, the tide was turning.

“I wish they would be so concerned about people who want to die as they are about people dying of xenophobia.”

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