After cancer had spread throughout her body, and death was inevitable, Patricia Ferguson decided she wanted to be in control of it. So, she went on a hunger strike.
“She had always said she would rather take an overdose than become a burden,” says her son, Sean Davison.
Having flown from Cape Town, South Africa, to Dunedin, New Zealand, to be with his mother during her final days in 2006, Davison was confronted with a horrific scenario and a decision that is hard to comprehend.
Unable to move her limbs, Ferguson was bedridden. Bruises and bed sores covered her body and her flesh was starting to rot. She wished her pain would end and no longer wanted to be a burden on her loved ones. She had starved herself for more than a month but her body refused to give in.
Finally, she pleaded for her son to give her a lethal dose of morphine pills that she had saved up over days. Witnessing her suffering for weeks, Davison sorrowfully agreed to help his mother.
“My instinct was to keep her alive. But I realized that this was what she wanted, and if I didn’t help her she would have suffered a lot more,” he says.
He crushed the pills, mixed them in a glass of water, and handed it to his mother. After about an hour she peacefully fell asleep.
Davison says this was an act of compassion; New Zealand authorities said it was a crime. He was arrested and later sentenced to five months house arrest.
Helping his mother die seemed to split society. Although many sympathized with Davison – including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a letter that helped prevent him spending time behind bars – others were appalled by his actions. While being kept as a prisoner in his mother’s house, Davison received two death threats.
In 2010, while awaiting his trial, Davison, now the Head of the Forensic DNA Laboratory at the University of the Western Cape, founded Dignity SA. It is an organization that is fighting to legalize assisted dying in South Africa.
“My mother would never have gone on that ill-fated hunger strike if she knew she had the option of an assisted death,” Davison wrote in a column in December last year.
But, just like he faced resistance in New Zealand, Davison has detractors in South Africa. Dr Albu van Eeden is the CEO of Doctors For Life, a group of doctors that campaigns against controversial issues, such as euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality. He claims suicide is an infectious disease.
“The concept of suicide contagion is a very well established principle in psychology and psychiatry,” he says.
Suicide contagion is defined as the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors from family, friends, or media, and can result in an increase in suicidal behavior. Van Eeden believes that 99.9% of suffering can be effectively treated with medicine.
“It’s just erroneous now when we have the most effective pain treatment in the history of the world, now suddenly there is a need for assisted suicide,” he says.
Assisted suicide is when a doctor provides the medication and/or information for a terminally-ill patient to end their own life, while euthanasia involves a doctor administering the medication. Today, euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Canada, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, and California.
In South Africa, assisted dying is illegal but some are trying to change that in courts and Parliament. The most recent case is that of the well-known advocate Robin Stransham-Ford, who insisted his cancer and kidney failure infringed on his constitutional right to dignity. In 2015, on the day Stransham-Ford succumbed to the cancer‚ the High Court ruled that a doctor could help him end his life. Numerous organizations, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Health, and Doctors For Life, asked the Supreme Court of Appeal to review this. In December 2016, the decision was overturned.
Aubrey Magerman, Attorney and Director at Magerman Attorneys, feels that assisted dying should be legalized; he says it is still a crime in South Africa.
“We’re back at square one, where we would be criminally culpable to assist someone in ending their life,” he says.
Magerman believes everyone should have a constitutional right to a dignified life and a dignified death.
“I have had my own grandparents pass away out in the rural Northern Cape under terrible circumstances, with no assistance, and in horrible pain, and being unrecognizable for weeks on end. It is terribly traumatizing for anybody. I wish, when it come to my time [to die], I will have the opportunity [to undergo assisted suicide].”
Magerman refers to the popular MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who had stage-four lung cancer.
“One day he couldn’t take the pain anymore and he killed himself. His family found him with his brain and blood splattered all over the bedroom walls and on the bedding. So, I don’t think the State should tell us how to die,” he says.
Despite this, Van Eeden says assisted dying can have consequences beyond easing a person’s suffering.
“Once you allow it you are stretching man’s tendency to stretch the limit or the borders which makes the slippery slope happen,” he says.
“In Canada, they now want to make it possible for people who are asking for euthanasia to donate their organs. Suicide was originally only meant for terminal illness, for people with unbearable suffering, until they said ‘on what basis is physical suffering worse than mental suffering?’ So then they said ‘ok, we’ll allow it for mental suffering as well’.”
“So now you find a person can go to their doctor and say ‘I’m depressed, I’m worthless’. Maybe he’s a disabled person or an old person, and he says I don’t mean anything for anybody, I’m a burden to society, to my children, I think I’m in the way. I want to rather commit suicide and please you’re the doctor, you must do it for me. Now they can say to him, ‘You know what? Your life is worthless but it can have purpose, you can give your organs for donation… And this just shows you what a monster suicide becomes.”
Van Eeden is also worried about the regulation of the laws.
“Holland was not able to keep its regulations. Firstly, they said there would be a waiting time, and two or three doctors must agree with the decision, but all these things went out the door. Initially, it was only for patients above the age of 18, now it’s changed so that children above the age of 12 years old can ask for euthanasia without the consent of parents. The limits are constantly being stretched,” he says.
Magerman agrees that regulation is vital if assisted dying laws are introduced.
“What is required here is for the State to step in. It should be up to Parliament, which is the body charged with making legislation. It is not something that can be regulated in the courts.
“It creates absolute uncertainty. It is simply for Parliament to say we will for now on regulate assisted suicide or euthanasia and the parameters of that will be set.”
But Van Eeden has concern that State regulation opens the door for laws to be abused.
“It will always be cheaper to take a life than to treat a person and try and help him. So there’s a very strong financial incentive to any government once you start allowing assisted suicide.”
It’s a complex issue with many legal, ethical and religious variables to consider. Those against assisted dying say that it goes against the sanctity of life that is stressed by most religions.
One iconic religious leader defies this. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in October 2016, said he would like to have the option of assisted dying.
“I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
“For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort,” he added.
In 1998, South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela asked the Law Reform Commission to look into assisted dying.
The commission decided that assisted dying should be legalized, even writing a draft bill. Despite this, it was never debated in Parliament, and continues to gather dust.
In 2014, Tutu lambasted the way Mandela was used as a political prop days before his death, calling it ‘disgraceful’.
“My friend was no longer himself. It was an affront to Madiba’s dignity,” wrote Tutu, who is often referred to as South Africa’s moral conscience.
Would assisted dying legislation have allowed Mandela to die with more dignity? It’s impossible to answer definitively, but a sobering thought nonetheless.