‘Assisted suicide is a world I don’t want to be in’
A FEW weeks ago Justin Varian contacted Sean Davison through Dignity SA, the organisation Davison founded to lobby for the legalisation of assisted suicide. Varian had motor neuron disease, was terminally ill and wanted to die.
Davison, a New Zealand-born professor in the biotechnology department at the University of the Western Cape, shot to prominence when he was charged in New Zealand with murder after helping his 85year-old mother to die when she was terminally ill with cancer and had tried, but failed, to starve herself to death.
He entered a plea bargain whereby he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assisted suicide. He was sentenced to five months’ detention, which he served under house arrest.
Last year Davison helped a doctor friend end his life after he had been left a quadriplegic in an accident in 2005. He said he found the experience so stressful that he never wanted to go through it again.
Apart from the emotional toll, the last thing he wants, he says, is to be known as “Dr Death”.
“I am often asked for assistance to die. This is a world I don’t want to be in.”
In that case he will have to draw a line. But how will he do this now that he has become the most public go-to man for assisted suicide in the country?
“The only way to draw the line is to not meet the people who are suffering and desperate to die, and focus my energy on getting the law changed for the benefit of all.”
He dedicated himself to this after seeing the suffering that his mother endured to try to end her life without breaking the law.
“My mother would not have gone on a hunger strike if she knew she had the option of a guaranteed assisted death.”
He says it was with some reluctance and after repeated requests from Varian that he eventually agreed to meet him. They met many times over the following weeks.
“From the first time I met Justin he begged me for advice on how to die. It was my compassionate duty to give him the information he desperately wanted. No humane person could have turned their back on him. He was experiencing unbearable suffering, and he was desperate to die.
“As a disabled person he was deprived of something that is legally available to an able-bod- ied person — suicide. The law discriminated against Justin because of his disability.”
Davison says he is not worried about legal consequences. “I would be worried if there were something to worry about.”
He ensured that Varian’s closest friends were included in the conversation about his death.
He also has a video of Varian expressing his desire to die.
“Justin made it public knowledge that he was desperate to die. I believe no humane person, who understood Justin’s suffering, would oppose him having MERCY: Sean Davison doesn’t want the ’Dr Death’ tag
Justin begged me for advice on how to die. It was my duty to give him the information he wanted
assistance to end his life. I am certain there will be no legal action.”
A high court case earlier this year in which Robin StranshamFord won legal sanction to be helped to die has not changed the fact that assisted suicide is illegal in South Africa. But it has set a legal precedent and as a result Davison believes the state would be reluctant to charge anyone for an assisted suicide.
The government is now challenging this ruling in the Supreme Court of Appeal. If it fails, it can challenge the ruling in the Constitutional Court.
“This will be the last avenue of challenge and the Constitutional Court will instruct parliament to change the law. Parliament will be obliged to change the law since you can’t have the courts and parliament having different interpretations of the same law,” says Davison. — Chris Barron