Cape Town – The recent conviction of euthanasia advocate Sean Davison on murder charges has sparked fresh debates on the legalisation of assisted suicide in South Africa.
The 58-year-old professor of biotechnology at the UWC this week received an eight-year sentence – five years suspended and three to be served under house arrest, after entering into a plea agreement.
Davison was convicted of the murders of three people: Dr Anrich Burger in 2013, Justin Varian in 2015 and Richard Holland later that year.
Burger became a quadriplegic after a car accident in 2005 and, according to his mother, Wilma du Pisani, who wrote to the court, attempted suicide in 2006 and even planned to go to Switzerland where euthanasia is legal to end his life – but couldn’t afford the trip.
Varian’s brother Robin Varian said his brother also wanted to die after he suffered a stroke in 2011 and was diagnosed with motor neuron disease.
Varian had also requested to be flown to Switzerland or the Netherlands, and Robin claimed, had even acquired poison off the internet from China to end his life.
Holland’s sister Philippa Misplon described how her once-athletic brother – who suffered head injuries after being knocked off a bicycle in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates – became bedridden and unable to speak, but was able to express his wish to die by communicating through eye movements and agreement to verbal alphabet.
Davison, who is co-founder of DignitySA, which advocates for the legalisation of euthanasia in the country, hosted a conference in Cape Town last year to talk about the challenges faced by countries either having already legalised or in the process of legalising euthanasia.
On a note posted on the group’s page, Davison explained that he took the plea bargain to be with his family.
“I know there will be many people disappointed that I accepted a plea bargain, and did not go to trial. If I had done this I may have been found not guilty, and thereby lead to a law change,” he said.
“However, I was facing three life sentences in prison and the stakes were too high. I have three young children and my children want a father not a martyr,” he said.
According to advocate Erin-Dianne Richards, while Davison could have taken the chance of going to trial and been convicted in the hopes of changing the law through an appeal process, it was too much for one person, as the debate for legalisation continues to play out in the country’s courts.
“There are not enough lobbying efforts happening in society because if you want the legislature to draft a bill that legalises assisted suicide, you would have to lobby for years to get legislature to draft that legislation, which is why we end up going to the courts,” she said.
“It is much better for patients to come forward to seek the right to die, there are another two cases coming before the courts later this year.
Dr Albu van Eeden, head of pro-life organisation Doctors for Life, described Davison’s sentence as “very light for a conviction on murder charges”.
He said that as doctors, they were faced with the suffering of patients on a daily basis but that it is not their duty to kill.
“That is what is happening in cases of doctor-assisted suicide. They (patients) don’t want to pull the trigger themselves and are expecting us as doctors to go and do the dirty work for them, but we have been called to heal and not kill,” he said.
“Once you legalise (euthanasia) in a country, to kill will be cheaper for the health sector and it’s a very dangerous precedent you create.”