Claiming right to final, fatal choice ~ Estelle Ellis

Assisted death is about life, about love and being kind, Port Elizabeth woman tells Estelle Ellis

Knowing her time is running out and not wanting cancer to steal the person she is, a Port Elizabeth woman has explained why she joined the campaign to secure the option for terminal South African patients to access “assisted death”.

“The fight for a dignified, assisted death is not about death, but about life,” Carol Tuck, 46, said this week.

Through the documentary Define: Living, Tuck opens up about the difficult decision she has made – she will opt for assisted death when her cancer spreads to her brain.

The documentary by AFDA Film School honours student Aury-lee Dunn and Christian Grobbelaar also features Prof Willem Landman, a leading figure in Dignity SA, the body fighting for legislation giving terminal patients the right to die.

“Let me be very clear. I don’t want to die. I want to be around for as long as I can, but I also want to be me.

If cancer takes who I am . . . if I get a big brain tumour I want to have an option to say it is time for me to die, while I am still me.”

Tuck was first diagnosed with colon cancer when she was 37. “I am a realistic person – neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Three years ago my doctor gave me five years.

The way this cancer progresses, it spreads from the liver to the brain.

It is now in my liver.” Three years ago she packed up her life in Port Elizabeth to go to Cape Town for experimental treatment of the tumours that had spread to her liver.

“Eventually I came back. The treatment was beneficial, but it wasn’t good for me. Coming home was better for me.” Then she received the news that her cancer was terminal.

“You start planning your life in events.

I wanted to be around for my son Declan’s wedding. My goal was to get through it without vomiting.

I made it. Afterwards I could not get out of bed for four weeks.”

Tuck said she had decided that she would like assisted death when her cancer spread to her brain.

“My parents are both ministers of religion and in the Salvation Army. It was tough on them.”

“I want to be clear that this is not about suicide. Assisted death is about life. It is not about wanting to check out of life because life is too much for you anymore.”

“I don’t want to shoot myself or put a plastic bag over my head. I don’t think I can starve myself to death. That is a horrendous way to go – and I love food too much.”

The controversial subject has long been debated in South Africa, with a committee of the South African Law Commission appointed to look into issues surrounding assisted death in 1998.

In 1999, the commission – chaired by the late Justice Ismail Mahomed – published its findings and recommendations, but the issue was never addressed by parliament.

In 2010, Cape Town professor Sean Davidson, head of the forensic DNA laboratory at the University of Cape Town, was detained for five months under house arrest in Dunedin, New Zealand, after pleading guilty to assisting his 85-year old mother in dying.

On October 4 2014, activist group Dignity SA was created to lobby for legislation allowing terminal patients to access assisted death.

Davidson heads up Dignity SA.

In May last year, Judge Hans Fabricius gave a groundbreaking ruling in the Pretoria High Court after an application by Cape Town advocate Robert Stransham- Ford, allowing him to be assisted by a physician to die.

Stransham-Ford died hours before the ruling. In his ruling Fabricius said South African common law’s absolute prohibition on suicide did not accord with the human right to dignity.

He said the constitutional right to life could not be that an individual should be required to live regardless of the quality of life.

In his ruling Fabricius added that while no doctor would be obliged to assist Stransham-Ford, any doctor who did would not be subject to prosecution.

The Department of Health has appealed against the ruling.

The Supreme Court of Appeal will hear the appeal on November 4.

“I think the law should change. It should be an option for people who find themselves in that place in their lives,” Tuck said.

“It is not a denial that miracles do happen. It is about timing, having the option and the right to make a decision.”

“In Ohio, patients who wish to opt for assisted dying get a script and take it themselves. Only 6% of those qualifying for it take the option. “For me, it is about the option of dying with dignity. Pain is the smallest factor I am considering.”

“The truth is that with the state of medical science constantly evolving, I would already have been dead if it was 20 years ago. “I am happy that the necessary checks and balances will be involved.”

“I want to be quite clear that what we are talking about is not suicide. I have received some nasty messages on social media, condemning me to hell for suicide. This is not that. It is a way to preserve dignity. It is about being kind to your family.”

“There is no dignity in suicide. A young man I know died after suffocating himself with a plastic bag. There is no dignity in that. Others have ended up in a permanent vegetative state after a shooting that went wrong.”

“Ultimately this is about love. We have some of the best laws in the world guaranteeing human dignity for almost everything – except for death,” she said.