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Book Extract: The Price of Mercy - A fight for the right to die with dignity

Book Cover. Supplied image.

Book Cover. Supplied image.

Published Jun 25, 2022


Johannesburg - In 2018 Professor Sean Davison’s world is shattered. Arrested for the murder of Dr Anrich Burger, Davison finds himself locked up in prison. An additional two murders are added to the case.

He now faces a mandatory life prison sentence. “The Price of Mercy” tracks the extraordinary journey that Davison embarks on to prepare for his gruelling legal challenge. He remains unwavering in his belief that we all have the right to die with dignity. A book that will change the way you see death.

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Before Sean Davison’s ailing mother asked him to help her die, he had never considered euthanasia.

“Dying is not something we want to think about. We are all busy enjoying our lives, as we should be, we don’t want to think about how the end of life may be.”

But Davison believes that if we did think about it, and talk about it, it would make dying and death much easier to deal with.

Sean Davison and his mother Patricia at her home in New Zealand in 2006. He was convicted of assisting his terminally ill mother to die and has since started the pro-euthanasia organisation DignitySA to make assisted dying legal in South Africa since his return. Supplied image.

“Most of us will get to experience the death of elderly parents or grandparents. We should be talking openly about death as a family, so it is not a time to fear. We are all going to die, it is not something to hide from, or fear,” he told the Saturday Star this week.

In 2004 Davison’s mother, Patricia Ferguson, was diagnosed with cancer. She was 83 and living in New Zealand. Two years later the cancer had spread from her colon to her lungs, liver and cerebellum.

Ferguson had written a living will, in longhand, saying she wanted to be in control of her death.

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The cancer ravaged her body. She was bedridden and soon lost the ability to move her legs.

When she asked him the first time, Davison refused. But unable to continue to watch his mum in agony any longer, he eventually agreed to help her die.

He crushed a dozen morphine tablets and stirred them in some water. His mother drank the mixture and died in her sleep. It was October 25, 2006.

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“I was very close to my mom; I loved her very much. My siblings understood how close we were and it seemed so right that I would be the one who would stay with her in her final months.

“Looking back these were the most privileged months of my life.”

Cape Town 121101- Sean Davison who was arrested for aiding his mother to die by injecting her speaks about the incident at Upper East Hotel. Woodstock.Picture Cindy waxa.Reporter Daneel/Argus

His mother was a highly intelligent medical doctor, he said, who had qualified when very few women were doctors.

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“She also had a passion for painting and one of my fondest memories as a boy were our expeditions into the wilderness regions where she would sit and paint mountains and river valleys, while I pottered around exploring the nearby nature.”

In 2010 Davison was arrested in New Zealand on a charge of attempted murder. During his high court jury trial Davison was cleared of attempted murder after agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser charge of assisted suicide. He was sentenced to five months under house arrest.

On his return to South Africa, he and Professor Willem Landman officially founded DignitySA, a registered non-profit organisation to advocate for a change in the law to allow mentally competent adults the option of a dignified death, should they so choose.

In 2019 he was sentenced to house arrest again, this time in South Africa, after pleading guilty to three charges of murder for helping three people, including Dr Anrich Burger, kill themselves.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “After helping my mother to die it opened my eyes to a world of suffering I had no awareness of previously. I was inundated with accounts of people with similar stories to mine with my mother. Stories where they had cared for a dying parent, and how terrible their deaths had been.

“I realised how very common it is to have a long drawn out, undignified death, and how humane it could be to have the option of choosing your time of death. I became determined to campaign for a law change. I want a normal life at home with my kids, but I want to be able to live with myself when I’m there, and not be ashamed of what I didn’t do.”

And there can be no doubt how Davison himself wants to leave this world.

“I have often imagined what it will be like at the end of my own life, and I recognise how bad it could be. I don’t want a long lingering undignified journey to death, I want to be able to choose my own time to die, so it will be peaceful and dignified.

“By choosing my time I can say goodbye to my family while I am still able, and still aware of their presence, and not suffering in great pain.”

He believes his new book, “The Price of Mercy”, will strike a chord with anyone who has been close to an elderly parent or grandparent who was dying.

“It will also resonate with those who have been asked by a loved one for help to die – this is happening every day in every corner of our country. It also highlights that it is not just the elderly and terminally ill who are suffering, but those with severe physical disabilities, such as Anrich Burger.”

He says the book gives a voice to such people who mostly disappear from our society.

“I am certainly not suggesting that because a person becomes a quadriplegic, they want to die, but they may want to, and they should be given that option of an assisted death.

“Any able-bodied person is capable of ending their own life, and it is not breaking the law, however a quadriplegic can only do so with assistance, and this is breaking the law – the law is discriminating against quadriplegics and others who are incapable of ending their own lives.”

* “The Price of Mercy” retails at R320 and is published by Melinda Ferguson Books, an imprint of NB Publishers.