South Africa’s political debate on euthanasia has been stalled for more than 10 years, but the issue is back in our discourse after a Cape Town professor was charged with murder in New Zealand. His crime? Giving his mother a lethal dose of morphine to end her suffering after her painful bid at suicide by starvation failed.
“I killed my own dad.”
I was deep in the Kalahari when I first heard these words spoken softly, just out of earshot of a group of strangers thrown together for reasons irrelevant to this piece. We’d long past the comfortable stages of phatic communication and had hurtled into dangerous territory where conversation was confessional.
An overly long road trip and unending desert provoked the type of concessions people would never make to friends or family. And so it was that I found myself sitting opposite a very reasonable-looking man who was telling me the story of how he ended his father’s life.
This man’s father was made Herculean by a life of physical labour, yet cancer withered his huge form into skeletal fragility. The final months punctuated by a debate that batted back and forth between these two people who loved each other.
Eventually this gave way to beseeching because the father, intent on ending his own life, had waited too long. His son had begged him not to die, and so the father lingered until he was no longer physically capable of committing suicide.
When his suffering became unbearable the father asked his son: “Please kill me. I want to die with whatever dignity I have left. If you love me, you will do this for me.” After days of agonising about the decision, that is exactly what the son did.
In the same way that Professor Sean Davison of the University of the Western Cape fed his mother a morphine cocktail that caused her painless death during 2006 after weeks of desperate suffering, this man I met in the Kalahari fed his father a lethal dose of the soporific opiate.
Davison was arrested in New Zealand and confessed to killing his mother after an original manuscript of his book on euthanasia, “Before We Say Goodbye”, was leaked to the media. The earlier manuscript contained details of his mother’s mercy killing which were removed from the later published version of the book.
The head of the forensic laboratory at UWC’s biotechnology department, Davison specialises in forensic DNA analysis and works to help exonerate people wrongfully convicted of murder through DNA testing. Davison planned to broaden this work by making these facilities available throughout Africa.
Instead he is fast becoming the poster boy for the euthanasia debate in New Zealand, where like South Africa, assisted suicide is criminalised. A highly intelligent doctor and psychiatrist, Davison’s mother wrote a living will after discovering her terminal cancer. It stated: “I have decided to die by inanition [exhaustion caused by lack of nourishment] … I wish to be the only one to decide when I stop fluids.”
Davison’s mother went without food for 33 days when, according to the New Zealand Herald, she said to her son: “I want to die tonight. I feel dreadful. I feel pain everywhere, and I can hardly talk.”
When asked by the journalist what he thought of this request, Davison answered: “When your mother asks you to kill her, it’s extremely difficult. With the unravelling going on in my head, it was extremely stressful. I questioned her asking me. I was taken aback. But on reflection, I didn’t blame her at all – she had no one else to ask.”
Davison admitted to the Herald that he ended his mother’s life, and that the original manuscript leaked to the press was authentic. His account stated he killed his mother by giving her “a lethal drink of crushed morphine tablets” dissolved in a glass of water.
It reads: “I held it in front of her and said, ‘If you drink this you will die’. I really wanted to be so absolutely sure that there was no hesitation. She answered, ‘You’re a wonderful son.’ I said: ‘It is not how you planned it. It is not what I planned. This is an event that will live long after you die. Do you want me to help you die?’
” ‘No one will ever know,’ as if pleading for me to do it. No one need ever know, that was true, but I would. Her destiny was not in her hands, as she’d planned, but in mine. I held the glass to her lips and gently poured the liquid into her mouth. She had no difficulty in swallowing her last glass. She looked at me with a gentle smile.”
Davison has used the book to lobby for the rational right to die through physician-assisted suicide, and his case is likely to refuel the euthanasia debate in New Zealand where a private bill to legalise physician-assisted suicide was defeated by just three votes in 2003.
“If a person wants to die, if they do it through clinics that have all the checks and balances to make sure there are no pressures and they’re making a conscious decision, why shouldn’t they?” said Davison. “I’d like to choose my time. It should be an individual decision.”
In South Africa euthanasia is a stalled political debate, largely because of the huge number of other pressing national health issues that dominate this country. The South African Law Commission made proposals to government after requests by then president Nelson Mandela and released a discussion paper to government that included a draft bill called the End of Life Decisions Act of 1999. Ananda Louw of the Law Commission, who worked on the project, says the commission handed the report to the then minister of justice Dullah Omar and it was later passed on to the minister of health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. “The department of health acknowledged receipt of the report, said they would give it attention when they had the time to do so, but they never came back to us,” said Louw.
At the time of receiving the act, Tshabalala-Msimang said physician-assisted euthanasia could be interpreted as a justifiable limitation to the Constitutional right to life. Many years and a few health ministers later it is likely that the End of Life Decisions Act is well forgotten, lost or collecting dust.
The practical considerations of implementing such an act would be difficult, and the outcome would likely see the right to die with dignity becoming a preserve of the rich who can afford private care.
Despite this, if you are a thinking person who disallows religion to predetermine your discourse on euthanasia, the question of an assisted exit will confront your core believes on the right to life and the right to a dignified death.
Did I think of the man I met in the Kalahari who killed his father as a murderer? No.
Do I think Davison should be convicted of murder? No.
Those are the easier questions to answer. If you want to get to the real nub of the debate you have to ask yourself the hardest question of all. Ask yourself whether you’d end the life of someone you love who was terminal, suffering and wanted to die.
Would you kill your own father, mother or child? DM
Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.