Tutu throws his weight behind assisted suicide

09 October 2016 - 02:05 By PHILANI NOMBEMBE

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has thrown his moral weight behind a campaign to change the law so people can choose when to die.

The campaign's aim will be to "bring the issue of death and dying to the world stage", right-to-die campaigner Sean Davison told the Sunday Times yesterday.

He said Tutu had agreed to work with DignitySA, led by Davison, and the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, which will hold its 2018 conference in South Africa.

The project will materialise soon and will build on the worldwide publicity generated by Tutu's 85th birthday call on Friday for the right to choose when and where he dies.

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"This is the greatest impact we have had in the campaign," Davison said after Tutu's remarks in an essay in the Washington Post, at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, and in a video.

"Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth," said the archbishop.

It emerged yesterday that Tutu has been in close contact with Davison, who spent five months under house arrest in New Zealand for assisting his elderly mother to die.

DignitySA's legal war chest received a R100,000 boost on Friday, when an anonymous benefactor bought a signed portrait of Tutu as a result of "the Arch's" statement.

It will be used to fund the organisation's defence when the ministers of justice and health and the National Prosecuting Authority appeal against a judgment last year by the High Court in Pretoria, which allowed terminally ill lawyer Robin Stransham-Ford to end his own life.

Stransham-Ford, who had cancer, died two hours before the judgment was delivered. The state is appealing on principle.

The case goes to the appeal court on November 4, and right-to-die lawyer Sally Buitendag said she was confident of victory.

"Whatever the outcome, this case will end up in the Constitutional Court," she said.

Looking frail, Tutu celebrated his birthday at St George's Cathedral on Friday. Later, he arrived in a wheelchair at a lecture in his honour at Artscape in Cape Town.

Tutu's interest in assisted dying was sparked by University of Western Cape lecturer Davison's arrest in New Zealand for assisting his cancer-ridden mother to end her life in 2006.

block_quotes_start I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life's journey in the manner of my choice block_quotes_end

He supported Davison and begged the authorities for leniency. "He wrote to the courts in New Zealand to request that I be allowed to return to South Africa on bail until the beginning of my trial," Davison said yesterday.

"When I was convicted of assisted suicide he pleaded for a lenient sentence for me.

"At that time he acknowledged he hadn't thought a lot about ... assisted dying but he knew I acted out of compassion and he knew how much my mother was suffering.

"I arrived back from New Zealand, we talked for an hour and after that hour he stood up and said: 'I'm just so overwhelmed by what you told me.' From then on we continued having a discussion around this."

Davison said he e-mailed Tutu soon after Friday's statement, thanking him for bringing the issue to the world's attention.

"He's now thinking of this issue in the context of his own life and death, which is something people don't normally think about until they get there, which is a shame."

Speaking to the cathedral congregation on Friday, Tutu said: "I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs.

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"I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life's journey in the manner of my choice.

"Today, I myself am even closer to the departures hall than arrivals, so to speak, and my thoughts turn to how I would like to be treated when the time comes.

"For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort."

Tutu's daughter, the Rev Mpho Tutu van Furth, said she was right behind her father.

"I agree with him wholeheartedly. I think that we all have to have a right to dignified death and to be able to make choices around our dying," she said.

"It is not saying: 'Oh my God, I am at that stage and about to die.' I don't think he is there yet.

block_quotes_start It doesn't sit well if you think about a man of the cloth or a religious figure speaking about death and being able to kill people. It is a very weird thing that Desmond Tutu is doing block_quotes_end

"What he is saying is that he doesn't want anyone taking extraordinary measures to ensure that he is breathing in and out, which is meaningless in the context of what life means," she said.

Anglican Church policy is against assisted dying, an issue that causes deep divisions in the church.

The head of the Anglican church in Southern Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, told the Sunday Times in a WhatsApp message sent from Rome: "We love him dearly and we will continue to do so even beyond this life, for as we profess, our loving and compassionate God is God of both the living and the dead. Sending my love on his celebration of 85 years of life from Rome."

Outside the church, not everyone was happy with Tutu's stance. Vaughan Luck, spokesman for Doctors for Life, the organisation that has joined hands with the state in appealing the Stransham-Ford right-to-die judgment, lamented the cleric's support for what he dubbed "assisted suicide".

"I can't understand the reasoning behind it and I completely disagree with it," said Luck.

"It doesn't sit well if you think about a man of the cloth or a religious figure speaking about death and being able to kill people. It is a very weird thing that Desmond Tutu is doing."


Video posted to YouTube by CompassionChoices.

Luck said assisted dying could open the floodgates for a litany of wrongs including the "assisted suicide of children". He used Belgium as an example.

"It will start off with a terminally ill patient who is in terrible pain, who doesn't want to live any more, and you pass laws saying that it is OK to kill that type of a person or to assist them in their suicide because of the pain and the fact that they are terminally ill," said Luck.

"You end up in a state like Belgium, which euthanised the first [17-year-old] just a couple of weeks ago. This child was suffering with depression, not coping with everything that happened to it, so they decided the best thing is to euthanise it."

nombembep@sundaytimes.co.za

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