Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. File photo: Ashwini Bhatia

A letter by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in which he proclaimed to support assisted dying was heavily criticised, writes Kashiefa Ajam.


Diana Kumst’s father was like the living dead. In her desperation she wrote a letter to Sean Davison, founder of Dignity SA, who had returned from New Zealand.

He was sentenced after he assisted his terminally ill mother to die.

In the end her father passed away and she was spared this moral dilemma.

The issue around euthanasia and assisted dying made headlines again this week. A recent letter by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in which he supported assisted dying has been heavily criticised.

“I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost. I confirm I don’t want my life prolonged. I can see I would probably incline towards the quality of life argument, whereas others will be more comfortable with palliative care. Yes, I think a lot of people would be upset if I said I wanted assisted dying. I would say I wouldn’t mind, actually,” he wrote in a letter to the Guardian newspaper.

Recently Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that a ban on assisted suicide was “incompatible with human rights”.

In South Africa, a report produced by the SA Law Reform Commission led to the drafting of a bill provisionally called the End of Life Decisions Act in 1999.

The bill was never enacted, but nor was it clearly rejected. It was also never debated in Parliament.

Two years ago the Ethics Institute of SA and DignitySA launched a controversial campaign to legalise doctor-assisted suicide and active euthanasia.

The campaign coincided with the return to South Africa by DignitySA founder Sean Davison, from New Zealand, who had been sentenced to a five-month house arrest for assisting his aged mother to die.

Davison was initially charged with attempted murder, but this was reduced to “counselling and procuring attempted suicide”.

DignitySA also launched an online petition to garner support for the legalisation of assisted dying. So far it has received over 3 000 signatures.

In a position paper released in 2012, titled “End of Life Decisions, Ethics and the Law”, Professor Willem Landman, executive director of EthicsSA, calls for “statutory legal clarity and reform” in the areas of terminal pain management, life-sustaining treatment and assisted dying.

“Competent persons have a moral right to make their own choices, including choices about their own continued life in clearly defined conditions, and to act upon these choices. We have an ethical obligation to respect that right,” wrote Landman.

Assisted dying, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are all illegal in South Africa.

South African law merely makes provision for a living will, in which a person can state that they don’t want to be kept alive by medical intervention.

No one can be forced to be treated, even if the treatment is life-supporting. A living will also overrules the family’s desire to hold on – the loved one’s decision is what matters.

If a person chooses not to have a long, protracted death, or to be sustained by a life-support system, the law states that their decision should be respected.

The law that DignitySA is seeking to be promulgated will allow people to have an assisted death if they are terminally ill, of a sane state of mind, and have made a free choice without coercion.

An independent panel of doctors would consider any request to ensure that all conditions have been met. The panel would ensure there was no family pressure.

Meanwhile, there are many families across South Africa who are desperate for the End of Life Decisions Act to be promulgated.

According to Davison, fewer people die peacefully in their sleep than we might like to imagine.

“Most of us will have parents and grandparents who experience difficult deaths. And we may well ask: ‘What about when it’s my turn?’”

Initially, said Davison, he had had no intention of becoming an advocate for a cause. “What I did to help my mother at the end of her life I did for the love of my mother.”

In 2011, Diane Kumst wrote Davison the following letter:

“My personal experience has been with my severely ill father who has had a seven year journey of suffering. It is very easy to

give opinions unless one has been affected by such a situation.

The arguments against euthanasia are that God’s will should be done, and we should not interfere with the process of

life and death.

All I can say is that that would certainly be true if it wasn’t for the interference of modern medicine that is keeping sufferers alive. And to what end?

Our whole family has felt it criminal that my father, who is 83 and has a multiple-system brain atrophy, which has been a seven-year process following a quadruple heart bypass and a mild stroke, is still alive thanks to medicine.

He has been bedridden for three years, almost died three times, and is in and out of hospital.

He cannot eat solids and cannot drink water because he aspirates and develops pneumonia and ends up in hospital. He

can barely move his hands and can’t move any other part of his body. He sleeps all the time and seldom says anything at all,

except when they try and open his clawed hands to clean them, and then he swears in pain.

My father has shrivelled to a fraction of his size, hardly recognises us, and has bedsores that are becoming untreatable

rotting flesh. When you look at him now, he is sadly like the living dead. Why can’t we just let him be? Why does medicine

insist he should be kept alive? We have no say. We have all asked the questions about whether there is another way, and

the thought of euthanasia has crossed all our minds. The whole family has suffered during his long drawn-out illness – and

not only emotionally.

My mother, after having lived a relatively wealthy life, and after my dad had made what they thought would be adequate provision for their old age, is afraid she is going to end up in poverty, and wonders how she at 76 will provide for the remainder of her years after medical and frail costs have robbed them of their retirement fund.

Three years later, Diana recalled her email to Davison. Her father died a month after she wrote it.

These were her sentiments this week: I had written that letter on February 21, 2011. The family was very distraught at seeing my father’s suffering, and we stood by helplessly watching his degeneration.

Amonth later, and just a few weeks after my desperate e-mail, he quietly passed away on the March 3.

A week before his death, the doctor had been suggesting that they operate and take skin grafts from his buttocks to fill in where the bedsores had eaten away at his flesh.

The thought of this poor, shrivelled body that had already suffered so much having to withstand an operation was appalling to all of us. It wasn’t easy to get hold of the doctor, but my mom was there with a friend late in the afternoon one day, and the doctor came around.

She confronted him, saying that an operation was out of the question and that they should stop the medications.

She asked the doctor whether he had really looked at my dad lately?

At that stage he looked like the living dead. The doctor conceded and stopped the medications, and one day later my

dad left quietly just before midnight on March 3. There has been a sense of deep guilt at ever wishing our beloved father

dead, which I am sure others in a similar position have experienced.

But an earlier passing would have been so much more merciful.”

Saturday Star