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Legal challenge for assisted suicide, euthanasia for terminally ill patients under spotlight

Palliative care doctor Suzanne Walter and her patient Diethelm Harck continue their legal challenge to legalise euthanasia in South Africa. Picture: File

Palliative care doctor Suzanne Walter and her patient Diethelm Harck continue their legal challenge to legalise euthanasia in South Africa. Picture: File

Published Feb 1, 2022


Pretoria - The controversial issue of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia for terminally ill patients will once again come under the spotlight in May.

Palliative care doctor Suzanne Walter and her patient Diethelm Harck continue their legal challenge to legalise euthanasia in South Africa.

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Special arrangements were made in March for the evidence of Harck and Walter to be heard first via a commission headed by Judge Neels Claassen. This was due to their medical conditions.

Both are suffering from life-threatening illnesses and are not sure what the future holds for them regarding their health and whether they will be able to testify once the court case starts.

Their application for an order directing the government to enact legislation which will allow for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, is due to proceed in the South Gauteng High Court for six weeks from May 3.

Harck gave evidence via open virtual proceedings last year, followed by the evidence of Walters.

Her evidence was confined to only the parties involved in the matter to protect the confidentiality of patients.

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

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

Harck 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 took him up to three hours a day to get up and get dressed, he could still walk a bit with difficulty and lead a fairly good life.

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But he said he knew the day would come soon when he would not be able to breathe by himself, swallow or move.

Harck’s condition has deteriorated over the years and there is no cure for motor neuron disease.

He told the commission that he and his family had discussed the issues at length and he had their blessing to go the assisted suicide or euthanasia route.

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Harck said he wanted to live his life with dignity for as long as he could, but if he no longer could, he could choose 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, as I want the law to change,” he told the commission.

As things stand, any doctor who assists a patient to commit suicide faces being struck off the medical roll by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

Walter said physicians, especially she who would otherwise be willing to assist patients in assisted suicide, were barred from doing to in terms of the HPCSA rules and the law.

She said she and Harck understood there were treatments for their intolerable symptoms, but they wanted to decide for themselves whether they wanted to submit to these treatments or undergo physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

They said their right to choose this was enshrined in the Constitution, but the common law forbade them at this stage from doing so.

They said the difference in treatment to people entitled to passive physician-assisted dying and people not entitled to it amounted to discrimination and was unfair.

Besides from asking that the common law be developed to allow for this, they are also asking permission that a willing physician prescribe the necessary medication to both of them and administer it if they wanted it.

The HPCSA, in its opposing papers, denied that assisted suicide was the only option open for Walters and Harck, and said their suffering could be alleviated by other means.

It also denied that it was at this stage lawful for a doctor to prescribe lethal medication to a patient in a

circumstance where it was foreseen that the patient wanted to commit suicide.

According to the HPCSA, doctors who take the oath and prescribe to the medical code of conduct should not be willing to kill their patients.

They said it was a patient’s choice not to be further treated, but there was no choice in being actively assisted in dying.

Pretoria News