On assisted dying, and Sean Davison being sentenced to 3 years of house arrest

Sean Davison, who helped his terminally ill mother to die in 2006, and who was subsequently sentenced to 5 months of house arrest in New Zealand (where the “crime” occurred), was today sentenced to 8 years of house arrest, with 5 suspended, for 3 similar offences.

Given that the sentence for murder in South Africa is supposed to be 15 years, this caused some consternation for a few talk-radio callers I heard today, and also on that platform of considered debate known as Twitter.

However, the sentencing guidelines allow for a lesser sentence when there are “substantial and compelling reasons” to deviate from those guidelines, and in this case, Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe accepted a guilty plea and ruled that 8 years of house arrest was an appropriate sentence.

Davison made the right decision here, as did Judge President Hlope. Those of us – like me, as I’ve written about many times – who want to see legal reform with regard to assisted dying, cannot afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Of course it would have been lovely to see Davison found innocent of murder, but changes of law – and of public sentiment – happen more incrementally than that, and might not happen at all if you ask people to violate or change a strongly-held value in one sudden move.

There are some who think that while we should campaign for legal change, we should continue to enforce the stipulated sentence while doing so. One such person is CapeTalk host Africa Melane, who today asserted (1m30s to 2m30s) that Davison should be subjected to the “harshness” of the usual sentence while that legal change hypothetically occurs, because “I’m worried about the message it could be sending to South Africa [when Davison receives a lesser sentence]”.

The message sending Davison to jail for 3 murders – 45 years at 15 each – would be that we care more about being alive than about quality of life, and that there is no difference between a drive-by shooting, and someone who cares so much about a relative or a friend suffering that they are willing to do something as difficult as ending another person’s life.

Doctors don’t, in general, want to kill people. We remember the Shipman sort of example because they are unusual. People who aren’t doctors are the same, except for cases like killing granny for an inheritance. We solve that problem with good legislation, that ensures – as best we can – that a death is sought for virtuous reasons, in an informed and competent way.

And this is why I’m pleased with Judge President Hlope’s ruling, because he’s in effect done all he can – under current circumstances – to make debate regarding that legislation possible.

It is a lenient sentence, and one that explicitly recognises that Davison’s actions were motivated by concern for those he assisted, rather than by the callousness, greed, hatred, or whatever it might be that we typically understand to constitute reasons for “murder”.

As I’ve noted previously, Deirdre Carter (COPE) was actively trying to push for legislative change in this regard, and it’s a pity she won’t be returning to Parliament to continue that work. But there are cases coming to the courts in the near future which will further challenge our conservatism in this area, and Hlope’s sympathetic stance towards Davison will hopefully help those towards a good outcome.

People’s lives are ended every day, by caring doctors and nurses who administer just a little bit too much of whatever it is, but Davison is still considered a criminal for committing equivalent actions, because we think that life – merely being alive – is somehow more important than caring about respecting the agency and wishes of the subjects we pontificate about.

As I said above, of course there can be abuses when assisted dying is permitted, and we need to guard against them. But, it’s possible to do so. And in the meanwhile, it’s surely time to start treating humans with as much respect as we treat our pets, allowing them to exit when life becomes unbearable.

Eusebius McKaiser and me talking about this case and the issue of assisted dying in general, on Radio 702 (20 June 2019.)


Also published on Medium.