Advocate dies before watershed ruling
By the time the High Court in Pretoria ruled he could be assisted to die, Robin Stransham-Ford, 65, had already died peacefully.
The Cape Town advocate had terminal prostate cancer and wanted to die with dignity, at a time and place of his choice, surrounded by his family.
Yesterday, Pretoria High Court Judge Hans Fabricius made an unprecedented ruling, granting Stransham-Ford his wish.
But it was too late. Stransham-Ford was already slipping away.
On Thursday afternoon, his care-giver and former partner Penelope Stransham-Ford announced he had died.
Stransham-Ford was being cared for by the mother of his 12-year-old daughter as he was no longer able to care for himself.
He was in such constant pain that the high doses of medication meant he was constantly sedated.
He approached the courts, asking for the right to an assisted suicide, and for protection for his doctors from legal action.
Professor Sean Davison, chairman of the right-to-die organisation Dignity SA, said he learnt on Thursday that Stransham-Ford died peacefully of natural causes. Davison said he was informed by Stransham-Ford’s caregiver and companion.
Judge Fabricius had given Stransham-Ford the green light to be assisted by a qualified medical doctor, who was willing to help end his life, but this order was short-lived.
“The family welcomes the High Court ruling in Pretoria. Since receiving the heartening news of the ground-breaking judgment, we are deeply saddened to announce that Robin has passed away. It was in the presence of his family and carers that Robin died peacefully,” she said.
The Justice and Health ministers indicated they would on Monday apply for leave to appeal against the order and subsequent judgment. They were just waiting for the judge to give his reasons for his decision. This will be done by Monday afternoon.
Stransham-Ford was by then to have fulfilled his last wish, as a notice for leave to appeal would automatically suspend the order, pending the outcome of an appeal.
But any willing doctor could up to the point that the notice of appeal was noted assist him in dying. This was to be either by way of administering a lethal agent to Stransham-Ford or by providing him with the necessary lethal agent to administer himself.
Judge Fabricius made it clear that no doctor was obliged to assist him in dying. The doctor who would have chosen to assist, would not have acted unlawfully and would thus not have been subjected to prosecution by the National Director of Public Prosecutions. The doctor would also not have been subjected to disciplinary proceedings by the Health Professions Council of SA, the judge said.
The order applied only to this case, the judge said, and future cases will be treated on their merit.
Judge Fabricius ruled the order should not be read as endorsing the proposals of the draft Bill on End of Life, as contained in the Law Commission Report of November 1998.
It thus did not lay down the necessary or only conditions entitling a qualified medical doctor to assist in committing suicide, the order read.
Stransham-Ford filed his motion with the support of DignitySA which has been campaigning for a law change to allow for assisted dying.
While most in the gallery awaiting the outcome, including several members of the legal profession, applauded the ruling, counsel for the ministers of Health and Justice were clearly upset.
They immediately gathered and confirmed that an appeal was the only way to address the issue. While the appeal came too late for Stransham-Ford, the outcome may affect the law on this in future.
Justice spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said they had no choice but to appeal, as the order had far reaching implications from a constitutional point of view and impacted on the powers of the NPA to prosecute. He also expressed his fear that this judgment could be misinterpreted and possibly abused in the absence of a legislative framework to deal with these issues.
Professor Willem Landman, also of Dignity SA, had said he had no idea when or under which circumstances Stransham-Ford would have committed assisted suicide. “But this is a huge victory, for us and for him.”
A former acting judge, who cannot be named for ethical reasons, said: “This is a landmark order of compassion. It took a judge with guts to prove this.”