DignitySA and COPE to bring advance directives Bill to Parliament

I’ve written plenty about assisted dying (and DignitySA, an NGO dedicated to securing the right of South Africans to a good death) over the years. It’s a topic that is understandably emotive to most people, but also one that’s the source of great tension between secular and religious views on how states should be governed.

For example, South Africa’s Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, mistakenly believes that “only God can decide when a person dies“, which is a motivation that can only be taken as legally relevant if you are living in a theocracy. In a secular state, people should of course be free to exercise their religious commitments if those commitments don’t violate the law.

But citizens should also not be forced to adhere to laws that are motivated by non-secular considerations, such as the idea that life is granted and taken away by a metaphysical being, and where humans (who possess the property of existing!) having no say in when and how they die.

The good news is that we are about to inch a little closer to securing personal agency in end-of-life decisions, thanks to Deirdre Carter (of COPE) having lodged a notice of intent to introduce a Private Member’s Bill on advance directives to Parliament. This follows extensive consultation with DignitySA, who have played a key role in getting things this far.

Unfortunately, I doubt that such a Bill will pass the first time around, as we are a deeply conservative nation, and because Parliament contains way too few lawmakers with the moral courage required to stand up to public disapproval of much-needed regulatory change with regard to assisted dying.

Nevertheless, each time that important topics like this are debated, some minds can be changed, and the public can become better informed, so that maybe next time, a law can be passed. But maybe I’m being too pessimistic, and it can be passed sooner than we think.

We do need regulatory change in this regard. Assisted dying is now legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, and seven states in the USA, and allowing for advance directives is an important first step to that.

As a nation that (rightly) takes pride in its progressive Constitution, and its commitment to dignity, ensuring that we can also enjoy dignity in death should be a matter of urgent concern to us all.

Carter’s Draft Bill will, inter alia:

  • provide for and clarify the legal status of two types of advance health care directives, namely, a “living will” and a “durable power of attorney for healthcare”;
  • set out the purpose, scope and format for these advance health care directives and provide for the resolution of disputes related to these directives;
  • clarify whether a “living will” or a substitute decision-maker’s decision may be overridden by a medical practitioner or family members in any circumstances; and
  • clarify whether someone acting upon these directives is immune from criminal and civil prosecutions

If you support this – or even if you think you could support some version of it, and would therefore want to see the public given a chance to debate it, and have it considered by Parliament – please submit a comment to that effect to the Speaker of Parliament as soon as possible. (The deadline is 24 August.)

DignitySA – who I encourage you to consider joining, and/or adding to your charitable contributions – have provided a sample letter that makes the job easy for you, and which is provided at the bottom of this post.

You can of course edit it to reflect any additional motivating points you’d like to make, but you could also simply copy and paste it into an email (but please edit “Joe Blogs” to reflect your name!).

DignitySA are the hosts of the biennial conference of The World Federation of Right to Die Societies. I’m pleased to be one of the speakers at this conference, which takes place on 6-9 September this year at the Cape Sun Hotel.

If you can’t afford the registration fee, try to at least come to the (free) debate, which will be moderated by John Maytham, on September 8 (15.30 to 17.30).

Land expropriation will obviously be the big issue in next year’s elections. But maybe – and I know I’m being atypically idealistic here – we can show enough support for this issue to sneak it onto the agenda too. So please take the 30 seconds required to copy and paste the text below into an email to the Speaker.

The Speaker
National Assembly

Dear Madam


In response to the call for written representations on the proposed Draft National Health Amendment Bill, 2018, I wish to advise that I support the proposed legal recognition, legal certainty and legal enforceability regarding Advance Health Care Directives such as the Living Will and the Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare.

Yours truly,
Joe Blogs

cc: D Carter, MP (dcarter@parliament.gov.za)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.