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Euthanasia debate to resurface with murder trial of DignitySA founder

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are seen as a violation of Divine Law in the Catholic Church. The case of murder against DignitySA founder, Sean Davison, to be heard in South Africa re-opens this controversial debate, as Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya reports.

The founder of the right-to-die organisation DignitySA, Sean Davison appeared in the Cape Town Magistrate’s court on three counts of premeditated murder after he allegedly “helped” three people end their lives.

The state claims that in November 2013, Davison administered a lethal amount of drugs to his friend, Anrich Burger, who became a quadriplegic after a car crash. 

The second charge is related to assisting with the death of Justin Varian in 2015, who had been suffering from motor neurone disease.  The state accuses Davison of “placing a bag over the deceased’s head and administering helium with the intent of helium deoxygenation and/or asphyxiation”.

A third charge was then added to his charge sheet on 29 April 2019.

Davison is charged with “unlawfully and intentionally” “administering a lethal amount of drugs” to former world-championship triathlete, Richard Holland, who was suffering with locked-in syndrome.

This was not the first time that the University of the Western Cape microbiology professor had appeared in court for helping someone end their life.

Davison shot to prominence after he helped his mother end her life in New Zealand in 2010. He was sentenced to five months of house arrest after pleading guilty to the charge of “inciting and procuring suicide”.

Davison’s mother, Dr Patricia Ferguson, a retired psychiatrist and GP was left terminally ill after her colon cancer metastasized to her lungs, liver and brain. Her son left South Africa for New Zealand to care for her during her final months. 

His mother confessed to being in extreme pain, even staging a 33-day hunger strike in the hope that she would speed up her death. Instead, the starvation only intensified her pain and she pleaded with her son asking him to help her to die. 

In a leaked manuscript to New Zealand’s Herald on Sunday, Davison confesses to “giving his cancer-ravaged mother a lethal overdose of morphine.”

The Catholic Church regards euthanasia as a grave violation of Divine Law. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia says: 

“No one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly, nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offence against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity. 

“The pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact, it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love. What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which the sick person can and ought to be surrounded by all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses.”

Davison and his team developed a DNA kit to help identify suspects in gang rapes. He has also used his skills to help identify the remains of anti-apartheid activists, known as the Mamelodi 10, murdered by the apartheid government.

These contributions and the stance on euthanasia have made Davison an internationally divisive figure. He can, however, count Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu as one of his most prominent supporters.

In September 2018, Archbishop Tutu issued an official statement regarding Davison’s arrest.

“Just as I have argued for compassion and fairness in life, I believe that terminally ill people should be treated with compassion and fairness when it comes to their death.

“This should include affording people who have reached the end-stages of life the right to choose how and when to leave Mother Earth. 

“I believe in the sanctity of life, and that death is part of life. Alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, the choices available to the terminally ill should include dignified assisted death.

“It is a choice that I believe lawmakers should engage, enable and appropriately regulate.”

South African law does not recognise the “right to die”.

The Supreme Court of Appeals (SCA) in 2016 overturned a ruling by a lower court granting a terminally ill patient the right to die, thereby upholding South Africa’s laws forbidding assisted suicide.

In a groundbreaking ruling in 2015, South Africa’s High Court had granted a terminally ill man, Robin Stransham-Ford, the right to die with dignity, by way of euthanasia.

Stransham-Ford, who was suffering from cancer, died just hours before the High Court ruling was delivered.

“The SCA held that the claim ceased to exist once the applicant died before the order could be granted,” the ministry said in a statement.

“SCA further held that this was an inappropriate case in which to develop the common law of murder and culpable homicide,” the ministry said, adding the outcome meant assisted suicide remained “illegal and prosecutable”.

Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands. Additionally, seven states in the United States (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Montana and Washington DC) allow for “physician-assisted suicide” rather than active euthanasia. 

The difference is that physician-assisted suicide entails the physician giving the patient lethal means to end their life and for the patient to administer the lethal dose to themselves in their own time. Whereas active euthanasia requires the physician to intravenously deliver the lethal substance to the patient who has requested it.

In some of these countries to qualify for euthanasia, people must meet a number of criteria, including proving that they have “unbearable and untreatable” suffering. 

Among adults, who choose to end their lives for psychiatric reasons, the most common reported conditions are depression, personality disorder and severe autism. People diagnosed with early-stage dementia can request euthanasia as a future course of action. In the United States, the procedure is forbidden for psychiatric patients.

Davison’s case is scheduled to be heard in the Cape Town High Court from May 24. He is out on R20 000 bail.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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