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‘I do not regret what I did’: Sean Davison, SA’s right-to-die activist, is free

This is the first interview with the UWC professor, whose three-year house arrest is over

20 June 2022 - 06:19 By CLAIRE KEETON
The three-year house arrest of Prof Sean Davison, an academic teaching biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), ends on Monday.
NO REGRETS The three-year house arrest of Prof Sean Davison, an academic teaching biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), ends on Monday.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

Right-to-die champion Prof Sean Davison can finally walk freely in public today for the first time in three years. His house arrest for helping three people end unbearable suffering with dignified deaths is over.

On Tuesday, to celebrate his freedom and the June solstice, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) biotechnology professor will challenge his three children to jump into the wintry ocean with him and his wife. “It is the shortest day of the year and we will plunge into the sea,” he said.

The head of Dignity SA, Davison was punished for assisting three men whose days were marked by anguish, with no hope of recovery, fulfil their wish to die. He acted at their request and each of them had a close family member who testified in defence of Davison in his plea bargain agreement.

“I do not regret for one minute what I did,” said the 59-year-old in his first media interview since the June 2019 sentence, flanked by a pair of friendly German shepherds, in a playroom overflowing with Lego and soft toys.

The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu publicly supported Davison for the compassion he showed to his 85-year-old cancer-ridden mother in New Zealand, giving her a morphine-infused drink on October 25 2006 at her request.

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu came out and supported me the day after my arrest in Cape Town,” said Davison, who got a sterling character reference from Tutu after being charged with the attempted murder of his mother.

An international human rights icon, Tutu subsequently expressed his support for assisted dying after Davison’s campaign to change the law — and win this right for us all.

“I get calls once a week on average asking for assistance (with dying),” he said, “and they will keep on coming forever. This is the tip of the iceberg, of people who suffer dreadfully at the end of life.

“Other people are going to end up in the same position as Anrich Burger (the first man he assisted). Everyone should have the right, when they are suffering unbearably, with no hope of recovery, to say they have had enough.”

Dieter Harck from Stellenbosch, who has motor-neuron disease — like Justin Varian, the second man Davison assisted — is fighting a court battle for SA to legalise assisted dying. The case will be in court again after September.

“Sean Davison is a pioneer in SA in fighting for the right to die. I believe, as Sean does, we need to have the right to determine when the end is reached,” he said in a telephonic interview, his wife at his side.

“My case is not only about myself, but about everyone’s right to be able to choose when to go.”

Sean Davison's book about his extraordinary journey will be in stores on Monday. It is published by NB Publishers.
Sean Davison's book about his extraordinary journey will be in stores on Monday. It is published by NB Publishers.
Image: supplied

His wife, Lynn, said: “With motor-neuron disease, Dieter will eventually be paralysed, unable even to swallow. He is not going to be in a position to commit suicide.”

This was the position in which quadriplegic doctor Burger found himself when he turned to Davison. The medical scientist thought for a long time about whether he could help Burger or not, ultimately deciding it was the “right thing to do”.

Burger had been accepted by the assisted-dying organisation Dignitas in Switzerland, but understood the cost and misery of flying overseas as a quadriplegic would be huge, and he wanted to die at home peacefully.

“The law discriminates against people who cannot (take their lives) themselves. I could not walk away and turn my back on him,” said Davison of Burger’s plea. Burger would have taken desperate measures to end his life, such as pushing his wheelchair off a high drop if not assisted, the professor is certain.

He made a moral decision then to help his friend, never expecting that five years later he would be charged with Burger’s murder, the first of such charges in SA.

To avoid being locked up away from his young children, Davison entered into a plea-bargain agreement with the court. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, fully suspended, a gag on talking to media, three years of house arrest and 16 hours of community service a month, which he spent cleaning holding cell toilets and the floors of a correctional services building.

Sean O’Connor, host of the podcast How to Die and a Death Café founder in Cape Town, said: “Davison put his own life on the line for the right to die a dignified death, a cause that has animated literally hundreds of discussions about death that I’ve been privy to, and that many feel helpless and fearful in front of.

“Davison is one of our champions. We owe him. He’s a gentle man guided by a deep sense of brave compassion. He knows what is morally and ethically right, and his conscience is our guide.

“His penalty for the most humane act anyone could ever perform, for someone he deeply loved, ironically received punishment. Davison deserves freedom,” added O’Connor. “We need his voice now more than ever.”

Davison, whose sons are now 13 and 12 and his daughter eight, was torn between the needs of his family and his cause: “Trying to change the law and be a family man are not compatible. My children did not want a hero sitting in prison. They needed a father.

“I have always been very close to my kids. They are the most important part of my life.”

The devoted father twice got a warning for violating the conditions of his house arrest, once after getting out at a park to mind his children on the way home from UWC campus. “Within 10 minutes there were sirens and police cars on the grass with lights flashing,” said Davison, who had given in to his children’s plea to stop there.

On Christmas Eve Sean and his wife Raine struggled to get their children to sleep because of the excitement about Santa coming. Then, close to midnight, the family was woken up when the police rang the bell to check on Davison.

“The law is the problem,” he said, stressing there were good cops among the hostile ones.

Davison said throughout his trial UWC supported him, allowing him to teach online even pre- and post-pandemic. (Davison contracted Covid-19 in February.) Before our interview he had just finished marking piles of biotechnology exam scripts.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) he used his expertise as a DNA forensic scientist to help identify extremely degraded bodies.

Born in New Zealand, Davison has lived in SA for the past 30 years, but may return there with his family. Last August he was struck off its register of medical professionals after a New Zealand Health Practitioners’ Disciplinary Tribunal.

“The murder conviction here was transferred to New Zealand,” he said, sounding disbelieving. He pleaded guilty to the murder charges only to avoid being locked up in an SA jail and so he could be a hands-on father to young children.

In New Zealand in 2011 Davison served five months of house arrest for helping his mother, Patricia, a medical doctor on day 33 of a hunger strike, fulfil her wish to die. He said: “I have applied for a pardon from the New Zealand governor-general.

“There is a fine line between being courageous and foolhardy,” said Davison, who wrote about his mother’s experiences and euthanasia in his first book, The Last Waltz. His new book, The Price of Mercy, about his recent experiences, is released on Monday.

SA’s law on assisted death and euthanasia is lagging behind the rest of the world and, in the view of some legal professionals, its constitution.

O’Connor said SA does “not trust its citizens to act in their own best interest, unlike the governments of Canada, New Zealand, many states in Australia, as well as California, Oregon, Vermont and New Jersey in the US, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxembourg and Colombia.

“The right to die a dignified death is expanding all over the world. Why not here?”

In 2015 Robin Stransham-Ford was granted the right to die by the high court in Pretoria just hours before he died from cancer. But this ruling was appealed and overturned, acting as a catalyst for Harck to take his plea for assisted dying to the Pretoria high court, supported by Dignity SA.

“Win or lose at the high court, this case will go to the supreme court. Win or lose, it will go to the Constitutional Court. We have one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, protecting dignity in life and, surely, in dying?” Davison noted.

He said Dignity SA is pursuing two parallel paths to change the law: the legal route through the courts and an appeal to parliament and MPs, a few of whom are considering it favourably.

More than 20 years ago, in 1998, the SA Law Commission proposed options around euthanasia, including legalising assisted dying, but no legislation has been passed.

The opponents of euthanasia have a range of ethical and practical arguments against assisted dying, including that it opens up a “slippery slope” to involuntary euthanasia and it is difficult to regulate. But regulations to govern assisted dying or suicide, which has traditionally faced much resistance worldwide from medical professionals, can be legislated.

O’Connor said: “In my experience there are medical professionals who have advanced the palliative care project immensely, which focuses on quality of life in the face of life-limiting illness. However, because they operate from a fundamental spiritual belief that life is sacred, it is often prolonged at any cost ...

“Sean Davison, from my scant acquaintance with him, cherishes life just as much as anyone and also understands that to suffer is human ...

“For the countless South Africans who desire the right to die a dignified death, on their own terms, one that is not racked by endless pain from an incurable condition they’ll die from, which can drain a family’s resources and cause endless complicated goodbyes, Sean Davison’s imminent release from house arrest is a cause for celebration.”

Davison is confident the law will change, whether it takes one year or 10 or more to get there. 

“I have given 10 years to changing the law and I will not give up until my dying breath.” 

The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who supported Prof Sean Davison.
The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who supported Prof Sean Davison.
Image: TREVOR SAMSON

Background:

On September 19 2018 Davison was arrested and charged with murdering his quadriplegic friend Dr Anrich Burger. The two had been friends for a number of years. Davison was initially going to accompany Burger to a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, until Burger decided he wanted to die in his own country.

In the next seven months Davison was charged with two additional murders: those of Justin Varian, who was terminally ill with motor neuron disease, and Richard Holland, a South African triathlete who became paralysed in a bicycle accident.

Each premeditated murder charge carried a mandatory life imprisonment sentence.

On June 19 2019 Davison was convicted in the Cape Town high court on three counts of premeditated murder. In a plea-bargain agreement with the state he received a three-year house arrest sentence and was banned from speaking to the media for the duration of his sentence.

Davison had a similar conviction and sentence in New Zealand, where in 2010 he was arrested and charged with the death of his 85-year-old, terminally ill mother. After a jury trial in the Dunedin high court he was convicted of his mother’s assisted suicide and received a five-month house arrest sentence in that country. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu approached the New Zealand court twice requesting leniency in his sentencing.

The late archbishop was a friend to Davison and supported Dignity SA’s campaign to change the law on assisted suicides. Archbishop Tutu publicly expressed his desire to have an assisted death if circumstances necessitated this: “When my time comes I want the option of an assisted death.” (Washington Post, October 6 2016).

After the plea bargain agreement in June 2019, Archbishop Tutu wrote to Davison:

Dear Sean,

We are thrilled at the result you received from the courts and that is what you really deserve for the generosity of your heart, worrying about other people.

Please know that we love you and wish you all the very best.

God bless you, Archbishop Desmond & Mrs Leah Tutu”

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