A group of South African mental health practitioners and psychologists from the Cape have called on government to decriminalise medically-approved assisted death. It is an “urgent priority” for policies, legislation and professional codes to be reformed to allow assisted death where no qualify of life remains, they stress.
“The right to a death with dignity is an integral and inseparable part of the right to a life with dignity as enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution,” the mental health experts argued.
The George Professional Study Group (GPSG) recently issued a press release titled “In Support of Decriminalising Medically-Approved Assisted Death with Dignity – George”.
The group was not in a position to suggest details of the reform needed, but believed strongly that policies and laws should not be founded on the moral dictates of religions and-or cultural communities, offending the Constitutional rights of others.
The George group said it took this stance following the recent sentencing of assisted-suicide activist Sean Davidson and a presentation to the GPSG of the case of ‘Mr A’. “Unable to guarantee that he will be allowed to die with dignity in South Africa, Mr A, a Southern Cape patient suffering from a chronic terminal illness, has decided to use the services of the Swiss non-profit organisation, Dignitas, to end his life on his own terms.”
In discussion, the mental health specialists say, “the main theme that emerged was the conflict between current legislation which resonates with the Hippocratic oath to preserve life at all cost on the one hand and, on the other, modern medicine's ability to prolong life far beyond the point where any ‘quality of life’ remains and all that is really achieved, is an extension of suffering.”
“The unsatisfactory situation where clinicians claiming to be bound by their Hippocratic oath intervene to keep dying patients alive rather to respect the patients’ living will and express wish to be allowed to die, was also accentuated.”
The GPSG, says the release, “considers human dignity to be the essence of what defines us as individuals and asserts that without quality of life there can be no dignity. The right to dignity is anchored in every person’s Constitutional right to freedom and security which includes the right to security in and control over their body and life.”
It continues: “These rights must be extended to allow people, especially those suffering from terminal illness or incurable regressive mental health disorders, to be allowed to die with dignity and to decide how, where and when that should occur.
“Stated differently, the right to life ought to be expressly extended by legislation to include the right to waive the right to continued life and to die with dignity.”
Suicide and attempted suicide by people not enduring terminal illness or incurable mental health disorders was long-since decriminalised, the mental health specialists point out. “There is no reason at all why those in extremis should be denied that mercy simply because they cannot carry out the act for themselves.”
The bottom line was that, while understandable from a religious and perhaps cultural point of view, the prevailing negative attitude towards assisted death was irreconcilable with the South African Bill of Rights.
* The George Professional Study Group comprises psychologists and other mental health practitioners that meet every second month. Topics are selected with the aim of acquiring Continual Professional Development points and to focus on topics that are currently experienced as having relevance to the group. For more information, contact clinical psychologist Tjaart van der Walt on 044 8734348.