'Assisted suicide order could be turning point for SA law'

The High Court granted cancer patient & advocate Robin Stransham-Ford his request for assisted suicide.

As of today, 65-year-old Stransham-Ford can now choose to have an assisted death, without the threat of legal action against the doctor involved. Picture: Freeimages.com

JOHANNESBURG - Rights organisation Dignity South Africa (SA) says it believes the order granted for an assisted suicide by the High Court in Pretoria could be a turning point for South African law.

Today the court granted cancer patient and advocate Robin Stransham-Ford his request for a suicide under medical administration.

The court heard that Stransham-Ford has only weeks left to live and should be granted his right to dignity through an assisted death.

Dignity SA says it's encouraged by the outcome of today's ruling, which it says addresses a serious human rights issue.

The organisation's Willem Landman said, "We are very pleased, in the first instance for the applicant but more generally in terms of developing the common law in South Africa to eventually legalise assisted dying."

As of today, 65-year-old Stransham-Ford can now choose to have an assisted death, without the threat of legal action against the doctor involved.

The court has, however, said the order is only applicable to Stransham-Ford and will not automatically apply to every case.

Professor Sean Davidson, who helped his terminally ill mother die in New Zealand, has welcomed the court's decision.

Davidson has become an advocate for the right to assisted dying after he was arrested in 2010 for helping his 85-year-old mother, who had terminal cancer, commit suicide.

He says anyone who is in excruciating pain should be given an opportunity to end their life and no doctor should be held liable.

"In most situations the patient would take medication for themselves, as is practiced in Switzerland. In Switzerland, the doctor is not even present. They write the prescription and are not even present at the death. It is the same in some parts of the United States. So the law hasn't been defined in South Africa."

The outcome of the hearing is still being hotly debated with some government institutions and NGOs saying they simply cannot accept the ruling.

Professor Ames Dhai, from the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics says the ruling will have some consequences for doctors.

"What would happen is the doctor would be reported to the Health Professions Council and would have to face a formal ethics inquiry."

NPA TO APPEAL RULING

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) says it will be appealing today's ruling, while government has also expressed its view in stark opposition with the decision to allow the assisted death.

NPA spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga says assisted suicide is illegal.

"Given the powers of the NPA, they are now affected because it means now they cannot prosecute the doctor, though we are of the view that he is committing what is illegal because active euthanasia in South Africa is not actively permissible."