A University of Western Cape professor facing trial in his native New Zealand after what he has described as the assisted suicide of his mother says if he committed a crime, it was one of passion.
“I don’t want to go jail. When morality and the law collide, morality usually loses out. I certainly hope it doesn’t happen in my case,” Sean Davison told the Cape Times yesterday after arriving in Cape Town from New Zealand on Tuesday.
He has been living in South Africa for 20 years.
“If I’m perceived to have committed a crime, it would be a crime of passion. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, I’ve got many people that I need to apologise to, but helping my mother (end her suffering) was not one of those (mistakes).”
Davison was arrested while in New Zealand visiting relatives in Christchurch, and appeared in court for the first time on September 24 on an attempted murder charge.
He said the situation he faced, while looking after his dying mother and wishing to relieve her suffering, was one to which many could relate.
“My situation with my terminally ill mother is not unique. The only difference is that I wrote a book about it. I didn’t want to become a martyr for any cause,” Davison said.
“What I did to help my mother at the end of her life, I did for the love of my mother.”
Addressing a press conference at UWC earlier, he said he planned to lobby for a legal review of euthanasia in South Africa and in New Zealand.
“Many people face ghastly deaths alone. There should be a debate in South Africa and New Zealand about changing the law on voluntary euthanasia.”
Davison announced plans to launch an NGO, Dignity SA, in January to lobby for the legalisation of euthanasia.
A statement said Dignity SA would be affiliated to Dignity New Zealand, founded in 2003 on the principle that terminally ill patients should have the option of assisted suicide. Dignity SA would offer the best possible environment for end-of-life care by promoting and ultimately providing palliative care and the option of “legalised assisted dying”.
“It is envisaged that this option will be offered to South Africans via Dignity Havens as an alternative to the palliative care services that are currently offered by hospices in South Africa,” it said.
“In this way, South Africans will be able to access clear choices in end-of-life care.”
Davison believed South Africa was receptive to changing the law to allow voluntary euthanasia “in a very carefully monitored context, as in Switzerland”. He acknowledged that not everyone would agree with this, but felt the issue should be openly debated.
Nervous and gaunt, Davison mostly read from a prepared statement, expressing his gratitude to his colleagues at UWC for their support, and thanking rector Brian O’Connell for his appeal which helped him get permission to leave New Zealand temporarily.
O’Connell promised the New Zealand High Court that Davison would return to stand trial in June. If not, UWC would dismiss him.
Davison, 49, is one of South Africa’s leading experts on biotechnology and his research on forensic DNA analysis is widely published. He has lived in Cape Town since 1990 when he joined UCT to do post-doctoral research, and later moved to UWC. He is married with two children, aged 11 months and 23 months.
A leaked manuscript of his book, Before We Say Goodbye, detailed how he had given lethal doses of morphine to his mother, retired doctor Patricia Ferguson, 85, who had cancer and died in 2006.
Before his mother’s death, she had refused to eat, living only on water, thinking that it would hasten her demise, Davison said.
The final version of the book was ambiguous about how his mother had died, but the leaked manuscript and an interview with the New Zealand Herald gained the attention of police last year. Davison was arrested when he returned to New Zealand to visit his sister in September.
“I’d like to thank those who supported me. Courts in New Zealand were very reluctant to grant me bail.
“There had been a perception that I would not return for my trial. I’m a man of my word,” Davison said.
The decision to release him is unprecedented, particularly because South Africa and New Zealand are negotiating an extradition treaty.
In his letter, O’Connell says the university’s appeal was based on the welfare of its students, and the important role Davison had played in reconciliation through identifying the remains of liberation fighters buried in unmarked graves by the apartheid regime.