Prolonging life at any cost?

2014-07-15 09:53
President Jacob Zuma visits Nelson Mandela (SABC)

President Jacob Zuma visits Nelson Mandela (SABC)

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Cape Town - Calling on South Africa to reconsider its laws on assisted dying, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu says that Nelson Mandela's prolonged death was an “affront to Madiba’s dignity”.

Writing in the UK's Observer newspaper, Tutu recalled the occasion when Mandela was filmed being visited by top ANC leaders including President Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. He said it was “disgraceful”. 

“You could see Madiba was not fully there. He did not speak. He was not connecting. My friend was no longer himself. It was an affront to Madiba's dignity,” Tutu added.

Voicing his support for euthanasia for the terminally ill, Tutu questioned why a life that is ending should be prolonged at any cost. The money could be “better spent” on a mother giving birth to a baby, he said, or an organ transplant needed by a young person.

Tutu added: “I revere the sanctity of life - but not at any cost.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation told News24 it could not comment on Madiba’s final days, “as the Foundation was not privy to the details of Nelson Mandela’s healthcare”.

Mandela Day debate

On Friday, as the world celebrates the life and work of Madiba on Mandela Day, the UK parliament’s House of Lords will be holding a second hearing on a bill to change the law on assisted dying.

Tutu argues that it highlights the “need to revisit our own South African laws which are not aligned to a Constitution that espouses the human right to dignity”.

However, the leader of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, regards the Assisted Dying Bill as "mistaken and dangerous" and the Church has called for an inquiry.

SA law

Though South African law currently prohibits assisted dying, Mandela himself commissioned a report and draft bill on assisted dying in 1998 from the South African Law Commission and tabled it in Parliament in 2000.

The campaign group Dignity SA said: “This tells us that he either believed in the concept or, at the very least, believed that it needs to be debated.”

According to the group, many countries do not have specific laws for assisted dying, but that does not mean that those who assist will go free.

“For example, it is correct that Sweden has no law specifically proscribing assisted suicide. Instead the prosecutors might charge an assister with manslaughter – and do”, said Dignity SA. In 1979 the Swedish right-to-die leader Berit Hedeby went to prison for a year for helping a man with MS to die.

The rules overseas

Assisted death, or euthanasia, is the act of a doctor deliberately ending a person’s life with drugs to relieve suffering.

Assisted suicide meanwhile is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person who commits, or attempts to commit, suicide.

There are a number of places where assisted death or suicide is legal:

Oregon, USA: In 1997, Oregon became the first US state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to help patients commit suicide. According to the UK based campaign group Dignity in Dying, the numbers using the act to die are low and steady – and in the 17 years just 752 people have been assisted to die. Doctors are not allowed to administer the drugs themselves.

Washington, USA: Voted in favour of an assisted dying law in 2008 modelled on the Oregon laws.

Vermont, USA: Legalised assisted dying in 2013, also based on the Oregon and Washington models.

Switzerland: Legalised assisted suicide in 1941. Assisted suicide in this country does not need to be performed by a medical doctor though the patient must be seen first by doctors and lawyers. However, it falls under the Swiss penal code and so all assisted suicides in Switzerland are videotaped and reported to the police. It is “a crime if and only if the motive is selfish”. Euthanasia is illegal.

Belgium: Legalised euthanasia for adults in 2002. In March 2014, Belgium became the first country in the world to remove an age limit on the practice - allowing terminally ill children of any age access to euthanasia.

Luxembourg: Approved a Law on the Right to Die with Dignity in 2008, for those suffering unbearably from an illness.

The Netherlands: Voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide has been lawful since April 2002 but permitted by the courts since l984. There are about 3 500 cases of assisted dying or voluntary euthanasia a year, according to Dignity in Dying.

Meanwhile France, though facing opposition from its medical ethics council, is also considering legal changes.

'Freedom of choice'

In Africa, where so many die young at the hands of war or disease, Tutu admits that dying old is seen as a “privilege”.

Yet the archbishop himself confirmed that he does not want his life prolonged.

Tutu said we must ask ourselves, “isn’t death a part of living - a natural part of life?”.

“We need a mind shift in our societies. We need to think. We need to question. What is life?”, he wrote.

Take the case of Craig Schonegevel, the archbishop said. After 28 years of struggling with neurofibromatosis, life was unbearable. But Schonegevel could find no legal assistance to help him die.

He wanted to die peacefully with his parents at his side, but instead swallowed 12 sleeping pills and put two plastic bags over his head tied with elastic bands.

Tutu argues that the South African legal system denied him and his family the dignity of an assisted death.

For Dignity SA, it is a basic human right to die with dignity. The group argues that “freedom of choice is the hallmark of human identity”.

- What do you think about assisted dying? Share your thoughts and stories with us.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  desmond tutu  |  health

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