Doctor assisted deaths:Right or wrong?

2015-04-30 22:01

Advocate Stransham-Ford had just two weeks to live before he approached the High Court in Pretoria to be afforded the right to die with dignity assisted by a doctor who, if he did that, would certainly face criminal prosecution as well as sanctions at the hands of the medical ethics committee.

Advocate Stransham-Ford was terminally ill with prostate cancer. He died on the morning of the very day that the court afforded him that right.

My question is whether doctor assisted deaths ( the term 'suicide' is so undignified) is right or wrong. Under existing SA law it's a crime. The Bill of Rights in our Constitution is mute on the issue but by no means, as I will argue, silent on the issue. It permits our courts to expand or develop our common law to be consonant with the ethos, the values and the spirit inherent in the Constitution. The right to life with human dignity, equality and freedom has as its corollary, the right to die with human dignity, equality and freedom.

So I will say its right and that it should be left to the individual and that on a case by case basis it should be allowed.

Rapid and dramatic developments in medicine and technology have given us the power to save more lives than was ever possible in the past. Medicine has put at our disposal the means to cure or to reduce the suffering of people afflicted with diseases that were once fatal or painful.

At the same time, however, medical technology has given us the power to sustain the lives (or, some would say, prolong the d.eaths) of patients whose physical and mental capabilities cannot be restored, whose degenerating conditions cannot be reversed, and whose pain cannot be eliminated.

Advocate Stransham-Ford fell in that category. Fortuitously nature intervened before a court of law could. (Read the judgment of the High Court handed down on the very day he died. It can be accessed firm www.saflii.org.za. The full citation  is  Stransham-Ford v Minister of Justice And Correctional Services and Others (27401/15) [2015] ZAGPPHC 230 (4 May 2015).

As medical science struggles to pull more and more people away from the edge of death, the plea that tortured, deteriorated lives be mercifully ended grows louder and more frequent.

Under present South African law, suicide is not a crime, but assisting in suicide is.h

Whether or not we as a society should support calls by lobby groups such as Dignity SA for government to pass laws sanctioning "assisted suicide" will , following the decision of the High Court in Pretoria, generate intense moral controversy.

There is no reason why we should not debate and discuss this searing issue.

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