Guest Column

#Righttodie: assisted dying will save lives

2016-12-07 08:09
South Africa should legalise euthanasia as many doctors are already secretly helping elderly patients to die, founder of Dignity SA, Prof Sean Davison says. (AFP)

South Africa should legalise euthanasia as many doctors are already secretly helping elderly patients to die, founder of Dignity SA, Prof Sean Davison says. (AFP)

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Sean Davison

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment on the Robin Stransham-Ford case was very disappointing.

Most people support human rights – the Robin Stransham-Ford case is a human rights issue – it is about human suffering. I do not understand how any humane person can deny an assisted death to a person who is terminally ill and suffering unbearably toward the end of their lives. It doesn’t make sense.

What makes a life worth living is subjective and specific to every individual; what is satisfactory for one person is not necessarily satisfactory for another. If the point comes when death is more preferable the decision should be based on our own individual minds, but that is not respected by the law. I certainly don’t believe the current law reflects the mood of the country.

One of the counter arguments against allowing for voluntary euthanasia is that we should rather improve the palliative care services. Palliative care is a very important option, and the hospices do a wonderful job, however voluntary euthanasia should be another option for those who wish not to prolong their suffering, but rather have a dignified death at their time of choosing.

Recall how Mario Ambrosini, one of South Africa’s brightest and most popular MPs, shot himself in the head to bring to an end a 17 month battle with lung cancer. He was terminally ill, bed bound and in great pain, with a very short time left. Mario Ambrosini had access to the best palliative care available, and could have accepted heavy morphine sedation until the end. However, in the absence of doctor-assisted-suicide he opted to choose his own time of death by a means he knew would be successful. If the option of an assisted death had been available, Mario Ambrosini would surely not have ended his life this way.

It is important to keep in mind that a person can end their life at any time without assistance. Suicides are very common, especially amongst the elderly who can suffer terribly towards the end of their lives – often they take their lives while they are still able to, before they get to the undignified stage. Often these suicides go horribly wrong and the person ends up in a far worse condition. If they had the option of an assisted death they may not attempted suicide knowing they had the option of a guaranteed peaceful and dignified death.

The law change we seek is not so much about ending lives but saving them. In countries where the law has changed there has been a marked drop in elderly suicides – the implication being that if a person knows they have the option of an assisted death they are less likely to take their own life while they can, and go on to die a natural death.

My own mother, a medical doctor, went on a hunger strike to end her life when she was terminally ill with cancer. The hunger strike went horribly wrong and she ended up with her flesh decomposing, unable to move her limbs, begging for help to die. My mother would never have gone on that ill-fated hunger strike if she knew she had the option of an assisted death.

The SCA has made its ruling but the fight for a law change is not over.  When you are seeking a political change you must be prepared for the long haul, and not be put off by small defeats along the way. Above all we must never lose our idealism.

Once DignitySA has studied the SCA judgment and consulted with our lawyers it is possible that we will take this case to the Constitutional Court. The initial High Court judge based his decision on the Constitution and the Constitutional Court may come to the same decision also based on its interpretation of the Constitution.

An alternative strategy is to attempt to get the law changed through Parliament. The problem with this route is the government’s consistent reluctance to listen to the arguments around an assisted dying law, let alone proactively engage in the debate. Our politicians are always fearful of putting their heads above the parapet. The question has to be asked: what kind of government lets its people suffer so horrendously, despite their clear and informed wish to die, because it is too controversial?

Everyone should be entitled to an assisted death if their suffering becomes too unbearable. A law that makes criminals out of people helping another person to end their suffering is not a good law and needs to be changed.

* Prof. Sean Davison is the founder and executive member of DignitySA.

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Read more on:    sean davison  |  euthanasia  |  assisted suicide

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