‘As­sisted sui­cide is a world I don’t want to be in’

Sunday Times - - NEWS -

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

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