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Wed Jun 01 05:45:29 SAST 2016

When is killing a kindness?

Katharine Child | 21 January, 2016 00:29
The state is appealing last year's High Court decision, which allowed cancer patient Robert Stransham-Ford to ask a doctor to help him die. File photo
Image by: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

The line between a doctor helping a terminally ill patient by giving them extra sedatives that could shorten their lives and euthanasia is not as distinct as some believe.

This will be one of the arguments the Centre for Applied Legal Studies intends making if it is allowed to join a court case on euthanasia.

The state is appealing last year's High Court decision, which allowed cancer patient Robert Stransham-Ford to ask a doctor to help him die.

Stransham-Ford argued that forcing him to stay alive while in pain infringed his constitutional rights to dignity and autonomy. He won the right to doctor-assisted suicide, but died hours before the judgment was delivered.

The case set a precedent and allows others to approach the courts for doctor-assisted suicide.

The centre is filing papers at the Supreme Court of Appeal to ask that it be admitted as a "friend of the court".

In a letter to parties involved in the case, the centre states: "While the dominant view is that euthanasia and palliative sedation are morally distinct practices, considerable practice variation negate this view."

Professor Willem Landman of pro-euthanasia group Dignity SA agrees. He says there is no legal and moral difference between giving sedatives to a person who is dying and in severe pain to keep them unconscious and actively helping them die.

Landman said sedatives to help a person stay comfortable could also be used by doctors to end their life.

"If life is shortened by giving pain medication which has side effects, how does this differ to actively helping a person die?" Landman said.

But Hospice Palliative Care Association of SA CEO Liz Gwyther says the line between palliative sedation and assisted suicide is not blurred. "If the intention is to relieve suffering, using high doses of sedatives is palliative care. If using sedative medication is to hasten death, then it is euthanasia".

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