World Suicide Prevention Day: South Africa and Euthanasia

World Suicide Prevention Day: South Africa and Euthanasia

The United Nations has marked the 10 of September 2013 as World Suicide Prevention Day. It is commendable that the United Nations has recognised the controversial issue. The law surrounding the issue has been slowly emerging through the topic of euthanasia.

What is euthanasia?

The National Health Service (NHS) has defined euthanasia as ‘the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering’ and, it is often interchangeably used alongside the term ‘assisted suicide’.

The United Nations has marked the 10th of September 2013 as World Suicide Prevention Day

The definition that the NHS has provided only outlines what euthanasia is as a whole, the issue is far more complex. It can be dissected into five branches; active euthanasia, passive euthanasia, voluntary euthanasia, non-voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia. Euthanasia raises issues beyond legality; morality, human rights and philosophy also play a big role. It’s deathly nature makes the issue a sensitive and risky area to tackle within policy and law.

There haven’t been many countries who have managed to implement euthanasia laws that please and suit the views of the majority. Belgium, Luxembourg, Montana (USA), Netherlands, Oregon (USA), Switzerland, and Washington (USA) are the only countries or states that have implemented some sort of legislation allowing assisted suicide.

The Story of Sean Davidson

The story of Sean Davidson, a microbiologist, emerged after his book Before We Say Goodbye was published in 2009. The book outlined how he had assisted his 85 year old mother who was dying of cancer to commit suicide. His mother had expressly requested that she wanted to be assisted in suicide. The book revealed that she lived on a glass of water a day over a period of five weeks. It’s not hard to imagine how much pain she must have endured leading up to her death. The book also described how his mother had started to decay and rot away day by day in front of him.

Sean Davidson is a resident of South Africa, but he had flown to New Zealand to be with his mother for her last few months. Once the book was published, it meant that the case was investigated in New Zealand, since the act of euthanasia took place there. The case was brought forward in the High Court at Dunedin. A leaked, unpublished chapter of the book exposed how he had given his mother a double dosage of morphine and he was initially charged with attempted murder. It was then changed to procuring and inciting suicide. He was acquitted of this charge and on the 3rd of November 2011 he got five months of house arrest for his role in the counselling and assistance of his mother’s suicide.

There haven’t been many countries who have managed to implement euthanasia laws that please and suit the views of the majority.

The judge who sentenced Sean Davidson acknowledged that he had acted out of compassion, however, she did state that this was still a serious crime. The judge’s contemplation on the element of compassion outlines the heavy weight of emotion involved in situations of euthanasia. Her statement could be heavily influential in future reforms of the law on Euthanasia. It shows that euthanasia is not a straightforward legal issue. She also felt that she had to mention the seriousness of euthanasia. In doing so, its as if she was indicating that this doesn’t mean that compassionate euthanasia will be taken lightly.

His case caught the attention of the media back in South Africa. Since then, a National Governmental Organisation (NGO) has been set up in South Africa called Dignity SA. Founded on Sean Davidson’s story, the organisation believes that everyone ‘should be allowed the option to end his or her life with assistance in order to preserve personal privacy’. The organisation hopes for a reform in the law of euthanasia within South Africa through their campaign.

The Position of the South African Law Commission on Euthanasia

Euthanasia is currently illegal in South Africa. The focus of the law on euthanasia has only gone as far as drafting a bill; The End of Life Decisions Act. This was outlined by the South Africa Law Commission Report, Project 86, Euthanasia and the Artificial Preservation of Life, November 1998.

The report discussed the role of medical practitioners in euthanasia through ways such as acting in the best interests of a patient. Their report also touched on philosophical aspects such as the patient’s right to autonomy. There was a hefty focus on the medical practitioners duty but It also took into consideration the patients right of refusal to any treatment that is life sustaining. The report indicates that authorisation will be down to the medical practitioner and this is understandable since they best know the patients state.

The focus of the law on euthanasia has only gone as far as drafting a bill; The End of Life Decisions Act.

However, it can be presumed that there may be too much of a heavy burden being put upon medical practitioners on top of their daily job. The irony is that they would also have to make decisions about almost encouraging suicide, when they have gone through years of medical school to learn about saving lives.

Since the report, Human Rights Law has started to play a bigger role in people’s lives. People have become aware of their rights in daily life. An example would be employment rights. This has been demonstrated by gold miners striking for the demand in pay rise in South Africa recently. Maybe now is the time for reform on the law of euthanasia, as human rights on how we conduct our lives have become more recognised and important.

Will the South African Euthanasia Laws Change?

There is widespread corruption within South Africa with money being the main cause. Passing a bill for euthanasia would need to be done with caution as this might provide an excuse for money hungry people to exploit the system. It may also open floodgates for people to commit murder with vindictive intention and use euthanasia as an excuse; this is quite a scary thought.

There would need to be a way to prove that the individual wanted to be assisted in suicide, and there would need to be a rigid and structured way of investigation. However, again, the corrupt system within the police only highlights the risk of legalising euthanasia.

Any reform within South African Law on euthanasia would need to be in line with the constitution which upholds the principle of having a moral right to a peaceful and dignified death.

The topic of euthanasia is even more prevalent since the figurehead of the nation, Nelson Mandela, was described to have been in a vegetative state at some point. This raised questions about the point at which it would be undignified to let him suffer. His name is so powerful that the topic of a revision on the law of euthanasia has surfaced.

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