Statement by Professor Sean Davison:
Friday 4th November 2016 was a landmark day in South Africa when five judges of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein considered challenges to the High Court decision which granted Robin Stransham-Ford his request for a physician assisted death. After hearing arguments the court reserved judgment – their decision is expected next month.
The High Court ruling in 2015 set a legal precedent in South Africa. Although the judge stated that his ruling only applied to the Robin Stransham-Ford case, it set a legal precedent for any individual with unbearable suffering to approach the court for a legal physician assisted death. The ruling held despite the undignified death of Robin Stransham-Ford before he was able to exercise his right, and therefore put pressure on the law-writers in government to supplant the criminalisation of assisted dying with a law that is in harmony with the High Court judge’s alternative interpretation of the constitution: that there is a basic human right to die with dignity. More specifically, the judge’s interpretation of the constitution’s right to bodily integrity was that a person is entitled to assistance to commit suicide.
It was disappointing that the government and the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) did not accept the High Court’s interpretation of the South African constitution and saw fit to challenge the ruling at a higher level. As an organisation DignitySA is particularly disappointed by our politicians’ consistent reluctance to listen to the arguments around an assisted dying law, let alone proactively engage in the debate. Our politicians are always fearful of putting their heads above the parapet. Their action in challenging the High Court decision highlights their instinct to hide from the issue. The question has to be asked: what kind of government lets its people suffer so horrendously, despite their clear and informed wish to die, because it is too controversial.
DignitySA wishes to express its immense gratitude to the legal team and their exceptional work in the High Court case last year, and in the Supreme Court of Appeal recently. This is an extraordinary group of people who have worked tirelessly on this case, motivated only by the fundamental human right that underlies this case and their own compassion.
South Africa now waits in anticipation of court’s decision. Surely the five judges in the Supreme Court of Appeal will endorse the compassionate ruling of the High Court. Every respectable person claims to support human rights. This is a human rights issue, it is about human suffering.