So that is indeed enough: Karel Schoeman and assisted dying

Karel Schoeman never wanted to be old. I don’t either, but maybe you do – or maybe you already are, by whatever metric you use to measure such things. Regardless of where you stand on that, I’m fairly confident that none of us want to die slowly and painfully.

Or even live, if it feels authentically pointless to do so, or if your thoughts routinely turn to how you can no longer add the value to others’ lives you once did. Or live, if you know that you are for the most part a constant burden to both yourself and to others.

This is how Schoeman felt, and what he recorded in a letter* explaining why he has chosen to end his life.

Schoeman was the author of 61 books, ranging from fiction to travel writing to history. He was awarded just about every honour that a South African writer could be, including winning the Hertzog Prize on three occasions.

His final piece of writing will not be in contention for any prizes, but it can and should serve as yet another reminder that we need urgent reform of our assisted dying regulations.

When their suffering outweighs the value of being alive, our pets are currently able to experience a more dignified death than our friends and family can.

Instead of having the option of a physician-assisted suicide, perhaps at home, perhaps in the company of loved ones, Schoeman’s options were to dehydrate and starve himself to death, or to break the law.

I’ve written about this topic many times before, so will not repeat myself on issues such as the potential for abusing assisted-dying legislation, except to again note that I see no reason why we can’t constrain that abuse sufficiently, through well-crafted laws, so that we can minimise the existing abuse of peoples’ dignity.

One thing I will repeat is a reminder to please support DignitySA’s work to make safe and dignified death a possibility. The last words are Schoeman’s, from his letter dated 24 April 2017:

I want to hope that my death will contribute to a wider discussion than is currently the case on the major problem of old age, as well as the general issue of self-determination, and above all that it might assist to bring about amendments to the current South African legislation pertaining to self-determination.

In this way, it is enough.

*Thanks to Theo Winter for sharing his translation of the letter with me.

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.