Diethelm Harck, 71, and his doctor, 47 year-old Suzanne Walter, a palliative care specialist, have approached the Johannesburg high court in a bid to direct the government to enact legislation which would allow for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Picture: File
Diethelm Harck, 71, and his doctor, 47 year-old Suzanne Walter, a palliative care specialist, have approached the Johannesburg high court in a bid to direct the government to enact legislation which would allow for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Picture: File

Court bid to have assisted suicide legalised

By Zelda Venter Time of article published Mar 2, 2021

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Pretoria - What he fears most is not being able to die when the time comes.

This was the evidence of Diethelm Harck, 71, one of the applicants in the court challenge to have assisted suicide legalised in South Africa.

Harck and his doctor, 47 year-old Suzanne Walter, a palliative care specialist, have approached the Johannesburg high court in a bid to direct the government to enact legislation which would allow for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

While the actual legal challenge will only be heard later this year, special arrangements were made for Harck and Walter to give their evidence this week.

Both are suffering from life-threatening illnesses, and are not sure what the future holds of them regarding their health and whether they would be able to testify once the actual court case started.

Their evidence will be presented virtually this week via a commission set up for this, preceded by retired Judge CJ Claassen.

Both wish to end their lives when the time comes when they feel they cannot handle their illnesses anymore. They also want to pave the way for other South Africans to be able to do the same.

Walter was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2017, while Harck was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2013.

Harck was the first to take the stand yesterday (virtually and from his home) and he testified with great difficulty, as his illness had affected his speech. His wife Lynne Grubb assisted him by repeating all his answers.

Harck said although it takes him up to three hours a day to get up and get dressed, he can still walk a bit with difficulty, and lead a fairly good life. But he said he knows the day will come soon when he will not be able to breath by himself, swallow or move.

His condition has slowly deteriorated over the years, but there is no cure for motor neuron disease. He is well aware of the fact that things are due to become worse, to a time where he cannot do anything for himself.

Harck broke down and became extremely emotional when he spoke about how he had visited a young woman with the same condition.

“She is totally paralysed. She can only talk with an eye gaze. What she said was what she feared most, was not being able to die.”

Harck said he shared these sentiments.

He told the commission that he and his family had discussed this at length, and he has their blessing if he wanted to go the assisted suicide or euthanasia route.

Harck testified that he was once very active, running the Comrades Marathon as well as competing in ultra marathons. It was thus devastating to him when he realised something was wrong in 2011, and was later fully diagnosed with motor neuron disease. He fell into a deep depression for which he had to be treated, and he often thought of suicide.

“I asked my doctor whether there was a way to end it all, but he told me it was against the law to help me commit suicide. I however never tried to commit suicide.”

Asked why he never did it, he said: “I love life and my family.”

Harck said his deep depression was now a thing of the past, but he wants to make the decision to end his life when the time came.

“I don’t know what to expect in the future, but what I have seen so far does not indicate that motor neurone disease death is peaceful.

“In all probability I won't be physically able to take my own life when the time comes, as my disease disables my muscles ... But it is my choice … if I wanted to do so ... nobody who has not experienced this can dictate for me.”

Harck said he wanted to live his life with dignity for as long as he could, and if he no longer could, he chose to end it.

“It is my choice to decide when I will be leaving this Earth. Not being able to (legally) do so, is extremely disappointing. That is why I am here today, as I want the law to change. Not being able to decide over my own life … makes me feel very disempowered.”

While he does not think about death now, the time will come.

“The moment I fear to live longer, will be the time,” Harck said.

The matter is proceeding.

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