'Give me right to die'
The Pretoria High Court is likely to hear a case next week that will determine if doctors can assist their patients to die if they are terminally ill.
Robin Stransham-Ford, 65, is dying of terminal prostate cancer and has urgently asked the court to allow him to end his life, arguing he will otherwise die an undignified death.
The advocate from Cape Town says he has only weeks left to live and is on morphine for pain which causes him to become confused and sedated.
He wants to die with friends and family around him, aware what is happening and the chance to say goodbye.
In his affidavit, he says it is a gross violation of his fundamental constitutional right to dignity to deny him the choice to end his life by euthanasia or assisted suicide.
In her affidavit his-ex wife Penelope Stransham-Ford tells the court that she and Robin have explained to their 12-year-old daughter that her father would like to die when he chooses.
Stransham-Ford was diagnosed with prostate cancer in mid-February. He found out in the middle of March that the cancer had spread.
Stransham-Ford says in his affidavit: “My quality of life has deteriorated rapidly since the middle of March 2015.
“I suffer from severe pain, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, constipation, disorientation, weight loss, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, increased weakness….”
His ex-wife, who is caring for him at her home, says: “It is heart-breaking to witness the extreme discomfort that Robin has to endure”.
In his court papers, he asks that the doctor who assists him will be protected from criminal sanction, losing his doctor’s licence or being sued.
Dignity SA, an NGO that promotes euthanasia, is supporting his application.
Ethics Professor Willem Landman, part of the NGO, said if Stransham-Ford wins his case, it will bring the law in line with the constitution, which allows people the right to dignity.
A win will also allow other doctors to administer assisted dying to other terminally ill patients without facing murder charges or losing their doctor’s licence, said Landman.
He argues that the constitutional right to life cannot trump the right to dignity. He also says the right to life can be waived.
Head of hospice SA Dr Liz Gwyther said that cancer pain can be controlled and after a few days of use, morphine will no longer make a person confused or sedated.
“Pain is not a good reason to take the scary step to ask to end one’s life. Cancer pain is a pain that doctors can control much more easily than other pain like arthritic pain.”
Gwyther said “Before we have the right to die in law, we need the right to palliative care in all state hospitals”.
Palliative care is “relieving of suffering” in terminal patients and is only offered by only hospices and many doctors who volunteer at hospices, she said.
She warned that it was feared that euthanasia, if legalised, could be offered to dying, poor patients for which there was no place for hospitals and thus the right could be abused.
In 1998, the law reform commission released a draft law on assisted dying. It landed on then Health Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang’s desk and was not put before parliament for debate.
The draft law requires a patient to be in extreme suffering, have a terminal illness, be mentally competent and adequately informed about his illness. The patient needs time to re-evaluate their request for assisted suicide and continue to persist with the desire to die.
Doctors also need to be allowed to refuse the request to assist with dying.
Stransham-Ford used the draft law to guide his decision. He was assessed by a psychologist and found to be rational, without a psychiatric disorder, and able to understand the course of his illness and the ethical aspects of assisted suicide.
He says he has “thought long and hard about it and am satisfied that I wish to die with dignity”.
Doctors for Life is opposing the application.
They say that using a lethal injection as is done in the state of Oregon in America can cause violent convulsions and the patient’s family is often asked to leave the room due to the undignified manner in which they respond to the injection.
Stransham-Ford was friends with IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosi who shot himself last year to end his battle with terminal lung cancer.
Dignity SA is inviting people who support euthanasia to demonstrate outside the Pretoria High Court on Tuesday 28 April.
They are also raising money. Tax deductible donations can be made to DignitySA. Absa Bank. Account number 9274459317.