Sunday Times Editorial: Why deny others the right to escape a painful life?

Image:    Esa Alaxender

Image: Esa Alaxender

Right-to-die activist Sean Davison's detractors may feel the law has caught up with him after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder this week. In fact, it is limping woefully far behind him. Three people who were suffering intolerable anguish and could not end their own lives turned to him for help. Each of these people was of sound mind and retained full agency in the decision. Each of their families spoke in defence of Davison.

The microbiologist and father of three demonstrated extraordinary compassion for the suffering of the people he helped to die. But the law, having failed to recognise and accommodate assisted suicide, pressed his actions into the mould of a horrible crime.

It is not as though this is the first time euthanasia has popped up. In 1998, the South African Law Commission came up with three options, ranging from leaving the status quo as it is to legalising assisted dying, with various people involved in making the decision. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for legislation to govern the matter.

Right-to-die activist Sean Davison made a plea and sentencing agreement on Wednesday which means he will not go on trial for three murders.

In this vacuum, people who are ready to leave this life are not able to unless a health professional or family member is willing to risk their own freedom to help them. At the same time, assisted suicide is a drastic and final step and should be subject to strict protocols to avoid abuse, both intentional and unwitting. These might include waiting periods, for example, and assessments by more than one doctor. Medical professionals would probably need special training to deal with such assessments.

The option is open to those who have the means to travel to countries that permit euthanasia. But this is not a desirable choice, even for the "lucky" few who can afford it - they would be far from home and far from loved ones as they took their final breath.

Writing in the Washington Post in 2016, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said: "Regardless of what you might choose for yourself, why would you deny others the right to make this choice? For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort."

Davison chose to accept a plea agreement rather than fight the charges, saying his children wanted "a father, not a martyr". It is not a choice he should have had to make.

Republished in full with the kind permission of Sunday Times. This editorial, published on 23 June 2019, can be found here (behind a paywall).