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.

Morality Politics

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.


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.

Headspace Morality

Dying with dignity

Yesterday, a strange collection of people received an unusual email. It was a suicide note from a man we knew to varying degrees, sent to people with whom he’d formed a connection over the years, whether via secular humanist activism (as in my case) or badminton, or something more intimate, like being family or close friends.

It was scheduled to be sent hours after he had taken his life, and included instructions regarding memorial services, burial and the like.

I didn’t know him well, so I’m not sad at his death in any personal fashion. I am however sad at how he had to die – alone, and with no certainty that his suffering would be alleviated, given that the medical support that should be available at times like these cannot be provided unless you can find a physician who is willing to break the law.

Morality Politics

Stransham-Ford and physician-assisted euthanasia

Allowing physician-assisted euthanasia (or suicide) is the morally correct thing to do, as I’ve argued many times in the past. This doesn’t however mean that any given attempt to make it legally permissible is sufficiently persuasive.

A court has to decide on the merits of the case before it, and the Supreme Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold an appeal by the Ministers of Justice and Health (among others), against the Pretoria High Court’s 2015 ruling permitting Stransham-Ford’s assisted suicide, seems to have been the correct one.


Euthanasia and a “culture of death”

Last Thursday was the first “Openly Secular Day“, a new initiative from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDFS) and other secular and atheist organisations. Perhaps because of the RDFS’s involvement, I find the day to be a slightly wasted opportunity, in that it emphasises the atheism bit too much for my liking, thus impeding the important bit – secularism – unnecessarily.

Secularism is the important bit because it allows for atheist and theist folks to work together towards a common goal, which is the establishment of laws and policy that is neutral with respect to whatever your beliefs regarding supernatural entities and mystical agents might be. It’s obvious why atheists should care about this, and theists should care because they’d also not like religious laws, if those laws happened to derive from the utterances of a god other than theirs.


DignitySA on Belgium’s child euthanasia decision

This is too interesting an issue to be posted on Facebook alone, so I’d like to share Prof. Sean Davison’s (of DignitySA) comment on Belgium’s recent Parliamentary vote to approve (voluntary) euthanasia for children. As many readers will know, I support voluntary euthanasia, and in a local context, support Davison and DignitySA’s efforts in campaigning for a right to die in South Africa. You can “like” DignitySA on Facebook, and/or become a member via the DignitySA website.

What the Belgian Parliament has voted to allow is unprecedented, in the sense that it will allow for voluntary euthanasia (in short, you choose to die – we’re not talking about “pulling the plug” on a comatose person) for a child of any age, rather than only children of a certain age (in the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia is permitted for children 12 and older).

On their Facebook page, Davison offered this comment:

I can understand that the Belgian law makers were motivated by compassion when passing this law but it is hard to believe that a child has the capacity to make an informed decision about whether to live or die when adults struggle with the concept. So often an adult who has chosen to end their life when terminally ill will cling on and cling on, unable to follow through with their decision. How can a young child be expected to make such a decision?

Our culture and humanity has determined the age when a person is responsible and mature enough to be able to vote, to join the army and die for the country, and to get married.

It is this same responsibility and maturity a person needs to be able to make a decision on whether to live or die. This is not a choice that should be given to a child.”

I can understand a conservative stance on this, but don’t agree with it. Ages of maturity are convenient fictions that correlate with competencies of various sorts, yes – but we use those convenient fictions only because it’s too time and labour-intensive (or, practically impossible) to determine whether the competencies actually exist in individuals.

At the age of (roughly) 16 (or 18), we know that most humans will be safe enough drivers, or responsible enough drinkers, etc. If we had the means, money and time, we’d want to be able to test 15 year-olds to see whether they were capable of these things, just as we’d want to test 19 year-olds and deny them these rights, if they aren’t capable of using them responsibly. At least, that’s my view.

Assisted suicide is one of those issues where the demand is so low, and infrequent, that the relevant competencies can arguably be tested directly, allowing us to do away with the convenient fictions.

In this case, the Belgian Parliament has ruled that “Children, just as adults do now, will need to go through extensive psychological evaluations with multiple doctors. Parental consent will be required as well as a written request by the patient.” For comparative purposes, consider that in the Netherlands (for children 12 and older), only 5 children have met these criteria and chosen suicide since 2002, so there’s no reason to believe this is creating a slippery slope.

As difficult as these decisions are – even more so for people we regard as more vulnerable – the Belgian stance seems logically consistent, and reasonable. Having said that, I’m sympathetic to the caution. It’s just that we’re not going to fix all our our anachronistic moral standards without some moral courage.