Euthanasia: death with dignity and the cost

Henry Bantjez

Henry Bantjez

Published Nov 29, 2023


Henry Bantjez

Paralysed from the neck down and unable to talk, he turned his eyes toward the hospital window with its view of the Swiss Alps. His eyes sad. It was time to die. He was a healthy 70-year-old before the stroke.

It happened four weeks earlier in South Africa. His son sat next to him on the bed and cupped his father’s hands in his. “Dad”, he said. “If you still wanted to go through with this…” He struggled to hold back his tears. Just the other day, his father was strong and proud and there he lay, weak and helpless. “Dad, it’s not too late. We don’t have to do this. If this is still what you wanted, tell me. Breathe deeply for me if it is still a yes.”

His father’s oxygen mask became misty as he took three deliberate breaths. His son sobbed. A nurse and a doctor entered the room. They spoke German. But father and son did not have to understand what they were saying. They knew. It looked like a small murky glass of water. But it was not. It was filled with muscle relaxants, anaesthetics, respiratory depressants, cardiotoxic and cytotoxic drugs. Euthanasia. He was gone so fast. At peace. Dead. With dignity.

Legislation on assisted suicide has previously been developed and proposed but not promulgated, and it is illegal in South Africa. The word “euthanasia” means “good death” and has remained one of the most contentious ethical dilemmas in medical practice across the world, in particular, the right to human dignity, the right to life and the right to control one’s body, thus not the right of the state to decide.

Human dignity is a nuanced concept that means different things to all of us, but it is an attribute inherent in every human being that should be respected. South Africa has the most liberal constitution and laws surrounding abortion. It is legal by request (no reason needs to be provided) when the pregnancy is under 13 weeks and it is provided for free at government hospitals, but dated in terms of giving its citizens the right to choose to live or die. A right that should not be controlled by any state.

The logic of abortion demands euthanasia. The logic of euthanasia demands abortion. Ethically, abortion and euthanasia are inseparable twins, for both of them directly hold the same value – the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

Legally, wherever abortion has been elevated to public acceptability, euthanasia lies just below its surface, waiting to be accepted as the other twin. Sooner or later, a society which welcomes the right to assist its foetuses in death will demand the right to assist its parents in death.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once wrote that he would want the option of an assisted death. Tutu argued that dying people should have the right to decide how and when they want to leave this life.

Legislation in Canada, several US states and European countries such as Switzerland, Holland and Belgium for example, allows for assisted suicide. But there are billions of people across the world, as in South Africa, who do not have this right. Or do we?

There are various euthanasia clinics in Switzerland, of which any person, from any country may become a member and can request assisted suicide for yourself or a family member. A Swiss medical doctor will be provided for you, which is vital for obtaining the required drug, and further prerequisites mean that you must have a terminal illness and/or an unendurable incapacitating disability or unbearable and uncontrollable pain.

You are allowed to bring as many family members as you please for emotional support, however, most South Africans keep it small and intimate, especially due to the tremendous cost of flights and accommodation. The clinic fee for the procedure (excluding airline costs and accommodation) is typically around CHF10 000 (R209 000) which includes a funeral service.

If you want the right to choose what happens to you when you become incapacitated and you do not want the state to make that decision for you, then start thinking about it when you are young and healthy. Make that decision when you are compos mentis. Put it in your will. It will make your case stronger when the time comes and you have appointed a lawyer to take care of your wishes.

But, ultimately, this is a conversation you should have with your family. Long before anything happens to you. If this is something you feel strongly about, then make sure you take out a dread disease policy (for incapacitating illness) that will cover your expenses for travelling to Europe with a family member.

Also, make sure that your life insurance policy will be valid. Insurance giant, Liberty came back saying: Euthanasia is considered illegal in South Africa and, therefore governed by South African law. When a client travels abroad to a country where assisted euthanasia is legalised, the client will be bound by the terms of their policy under South African law.

Euthanasia raises profound ethical and moral questions. Supporters argue that it is a compassionate and dignified way to end suffering, particularly in cases of terminal illness. Opponents argue that it raises significant ethical concerns, including the potential for abuse, coercion and mistakes in diagnosing terminal conditions.

Proponents of euthanasia have presented arguments that people have a right to self-determination, and thus should be allowed to choose their fate and that medically assisting a subject to die through controlled measures is a better choice than suffering. Ultimately, ask yourself this question: If you were incapacitated for life, and you had choices, what would you do?

Henry Bantjez is a behavioural psychology expert and publishes regularly on wellness topics.

The Star

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South AfricaWellness