Last week in South Africa, a retired judge heard testimony from two terminally ill individuals petitioning for a change in the law to allow both physician-assisted suicide (PAS), in which a doctor prescribes and the patient self-administers life-ending medication, as well as physician-assisted euthanasia (PAE), in which a doctor actually administers the medication(s) to cause the patient’s death. Members of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), South Africa’s regulating body for healthcare professionals, voiced strong opposition to a change in the law, citing concerns that such a change would further undermine patients’ trust in doctors and open the door to abuses by unscrupulous doctors and/or family members of terminally ill patients.
The petitioning individuals are South African palliative care doctor Suzanne Walter and her patient Diethelm Harck. Walter was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer, in 2017. Harck, 71, received a diagnosis of motor neuron disease, a progressive neurological disease, in 2013. According to one news report, “Their evidence is being taken on commission before retired Judge Neels Claassen in case they are too ill, or have died, when the case is heard later this year.”
Harck, a former marathoner and ultra-marathoner, testified that his motor neuron disease is impacting his ability to perform activities of daily living, preventing him from tying his shoes or buttoning a shirt, and causing him to become short of breath easily. He stated that he loves his life now, “but my biggest fear is that when my love of life reaches the stage of fearing life, I will not be able to die.” He argued that PAS or PAE ought to be available to him ‘the moment’ he begins to ‘fear life.’ His primary argument for the legalization of PAS and PAE is not based on fear of untreatable pain but on alleged lack of bodily autonomy and ‘disempowerment.’
Another news story about the case framed the petition similarly, claiming that Walter and Harck “want Parliament to pass a law to give effect to their rights to self-determination.” But as Live Action News previously noted, “people seek assisted suicide because they are hopeless, afraid of being a burden, have little to no support, and are depressed — the same reasons healthy people attempt to kill themselves.” People who are terminally ill deserve care, compassion, support, and empathy, just as we would offer to physically healthy suicidal people.
HPCSA advocate Adrian D’Oliveira noted the tremendous potential for abuse if PAS and PAE were to be legalized, especially given the high poverty rate in South Africa. “You could imagine a home where there are not sufficient beds for everybody and where food is insufficient. [Terminally ill individuals] would internalise the pressure to die. It would not be a free choice and the law would not protect them.”
Furthermore, the HPCSA advocated for palliative care instead of PAS and PAE, saying, “Medicine and medical treatment alleviate the pain and suffering of those who have or are terminally ill with serious illness. These treatments are available (to Walter and Harck) and are gradually being made available to all people in South Africa.”
A friend of the Court statement by Cause for Justice argued that “Departing from principle will lead to a culture change and a slippery slope towards accepting death as a solution to human pain and suffering. We must guard against this at all costs.”
The case comes on the heels of disturbing research findings regarding the effects of Belgium’s assisted suicide laws, which show that the 19-year-old law has allowed the widespread failure of intended safeguards and has been used to justify death as a ‘solution’ to an ever-widening number of medical conditions or psychological problems.
Live Action News has repeatedly drawn attention to the dangers of legalizing euthanasia based on evidence from the United States and abroad. Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood of New York began advocating for assisted suicide, claiming that “the right to bodily autonomy and self-determination is not constrained to one aspect of being, but rather the spectrum of life.”
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