Tutu dares religion and the law to allow assisted suicide


When a sick person is suffering unbearably, should one assist him or her to die? Desmond Tutu (85) says he does not wish to be kept alive “at all costs”. (Photo:AFP)

ANGLICAN ARCHBISHOP emeritus Desmond Tutu’s statement on Friday, supporting legalisation of assisted suicide in South Africa for desperately ill people who want to die, touches on a very sensitive issue. For people suffering unbearably, says Tutu, “immeasurable comfort” is afforded by knowing assisted death is possible.

Tutu, who is 85 and in poor health, said he wanted to enter the next phase of life’s journey “in the manner of my choice”. Speaking at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, he said he had prepared for his own death, and “I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs”.

Most legal systems and religious faiths, however, reject his stance. Official Anglican Church policy opposes assisted dying, although this stance is contested by some members of the church. The prevalent Jewish view is that only God gives life and only God can choose to end it.

The legal aspects of assisted suicide are highly contentious, with supporters and opponents equally vehement. They are illustrated by the case of a Spanish man, Ramon Sampedro, whose story was documented in a 2004 film, The Sea Inside, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It relates the 28-year campaign of the man, who was left quadriplegic after a diving accident, for the right to end his life with assistance from others, which was illegal in Spanish law.

In 1998 he succeeded in dying with dignity, after planning his death with help from loved ones in a way in which, because of how he set up the details, no-one could be charged with the crime. In one part of the film he implores the person he is closest to: “If you love me, help me to die.”

Opponents of legalising assisted suicide argue that it opens the door to a host of wrongful acts, such as helping deeply depressed people to die when other treatments may have helped them recover and lead meaningful lives. Or assisted suicide which is done for purposes of other, less noble agendas.

What if a sick patient cannot communicate the wish to die, and therefore has no choice but to go on suffering? To pre-empt this, some people take the route of signing a “Living Will” while of sound mind, stipulating that in the case of illness with no chance of recovery or quality of life, he or she should be allowed to die rather than kept alive artificially. Priests, rabbis, doctors and lawyers have been presented with Living Wills to hold for congregationists, patients and clients.

Some of these professionals, however, refuse to accept Living Wills since it violates their belief in the supreme sanctity of life, forcing individuals to find other places to lodge them to ensure no-one blocks implementing them.

Once feeding tubes or other artificial means of maintaining life have been connected to a patient, should they be removed under any circumstances? The dominant Jewish view is that once connected, they must not be removed, since that would amount to proactively murdering the patient. However, whether such life support should be installed in the first place is a choice doctors, family or designated executors can make.

Tutu supports the organisation DignitySA, led by former University of Western Cape lecturer Sean Davison who was arrested in New Zealand for helping his cancer-ridden mother to end her life in 2006. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies will hold its 2018 conference in South Africa.

DignitySA is fighting a case where the ministers of justice and health and National Prosecuting Authority are appealing a judgment made last year by the Pretoria High Court, which allowed terminally ill lawyer Robin Stransham-Ford, who had cancer, to end his life. Stransham-Ford died two hours before the judgment was delivered. Lawyer Sally Buitendag who supports the right to die said: “Whatever the outcome, this case will end up in the Constitutional Court.”

Anyone who has watched a loved one suffering terribly with an incurable condition, must feel some sympathy for Tutu’s argument of allowing or assisting that person to die with dignity at his or her own choosing, and to end the wretchedness.

Tutu has long been a courageous voice of morality and reason during the anti-apartheid struggle and in other contexts. The issue of assisted suicide is, however, a new and very personal matter for him. Given the fervent, opposing viewpoints which assisted suicide evokes, it is not clear whether his stance will add to his moral standing as a man of compassion, or detract from it?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)


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