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I have come to the end of an extraordinary journey that began with the death of my mother in 2006 and ended last month when I returned to my life and family in Cape Town.
During this time, I stood trial for the attempted murder of my mother and was eventually convicted of assisting her suicide, for which I served a five-month house arrest sentence in New Zealand.
I wish to express my sincere gratitude for the overwhelming support I received following my arrest and subsequent trial and sentence. This support has come not only from friends and family, but also from complete strangers. This support gave me and my family considerable strength during this difficult time.
Over the past year I have received hundreds of letters and e-mails from people who have experienced similar situations with terminally ill relatives, often in circumstances much more tragic than my own.
I feel the difference between my story and theirs is that I wrote a book about my experience and in some ways my book and my experience now represent them and their stories.
Although my book led to my prosecution, I do not regret publishing it.
One of the main reasons to publish was to open people’s eyes to the issues surrounding the deaths of our loved ones and encourage debate on a change in the law. Society is now embracing issues that have previously been uncomfortable to deal with, such as sexuality, homosexuality, contraception, Aids, abortion and drug abuse.
These are no longer taboo subjects for dinner table and classroom discussion, and this opening up has surely resulted in a better-educated and more understanding society.
I believe we are now ready to discuss the complex issues around death and dying. By openly discussing these issues, it also helps prepare us for death and may make us less afraid. Death is something we all must face.
Because my mother was a medical doctor, I think people put some value on her approach to dying. There is certainly admiration for her courage and resourcefulness in choosing to stop eating, the most uncomplicated method at her disposal. Ultimately, however, her decision to go on a hunger strike was perhaps an error of judgement that could be described as a cautionary tale. Her hunger strike went horribly wrong and after 35 days she was barely able to move a limb and was certainly incapable of ending her own life by another means.
I believe any humane person would have done what I did if faced with the same circumstances. I am now convinced that I was not prosecuted for what I did; I was prosecuted for writing a book, for telling the truth.
Not for a moment did I seriously consider that I would be prosecuted as a result of publishing my story.
My story is now over. I have done my sentence, but I committed no crime. Throughout this time I’ve stood my ground and made my point that it is not a crime to help someone of sound and sober mind to die when they have already made that decision for themselves.
The issue is no longer about me, my mother, or my book.
It is about the fact that almost every day some people will end up in the same position that I was in, and some people will end up in the position my mother was in, and that surely in a civilised society there should be some mechanism whereby someone who is terminally ill, and in pain and discomfort, facing a humiliating decline, should be able to say, “No thanks, I would rather leave now, with dignity”, and that society should respect that wish.
I believe there is public support for a law change.
As founder and executive committee member of DignitySA, I encourage those who support the call for a law change to allow for assisted dying under precisely defined conditions to sign the petition, which can be accessed from the DignitySA web page (www.dignitySA.com).
This is the public’s opportunity to make a clear statement to our politicians. SA has led the world in social and cultural reform. Now I believe we are ready to lead the world in dealing with this issue.
The issue of voluntary euthanasia is a challenge to the whole human race and is one of the greatest challenges facing our humanity.