News | South Africa | Courts
Motor neurone disease (MND) sufferer Dieter Harck has gone to court to fight for the right to end his life on his own terms.
But, says the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Harck and his former palliative care specialist Dr Suzanne Walter have launched a bold new legal challenge to laws around assisted dying.
They want the law changed to give effect to their rights to self-determination and allow for both physician-assisted suicide (PAS) – in which a doctor gives a patient a lethal dose of medication to administer him or herself – and physician-administered euthanasia (PAE) in which the doctor administers the medication to his or her patient.
In the interim, they also want the courts to declare that any sound-minded, terminally ill person can approach them for an order allowing them for assisted death. And they want such an order for themselves.
The case has yet to be set down for hearing but Harck and Walter – who herself has multiple myeloma – fear they might not live long enough to testify at trial.
As a result, a special commission has been set up to hear their evidence this week. During his evidence in chief, Harck on Monday told the commission he had seen firsthand what death as a result of MND looked like and he didn’t want that for himself.
But under cross-examination yesterday, advocate Andre D’Oliviera, for the HPCSA, put it to Harck that with appropriate palliative care, doctors could ensure he experienced no pain or suffering.
He said it was possible to sedate patients, likening it to putting him or her under general anaesthetic.
“My instructions are that an experienced medical doctor has the ability to make a person unconscious like that in the context of palliative care,” he said.
“Medical doctors at the moment can make you unconscious so you don’t have to experience anything. You will feel no pain.”
Harck was, however, adamant, the choice should be his.
“In my opinion the human right to life is tied down with the right to die.”
Earlier in the day, advocate Vas Soni, for the state, called into question Harck’s diagnosis. He pointed to the 2013 diagnosis as having been one of “presumptive MND” and highlighted that the neurologist who provided it had recommended further tests, which had not been done.
He said the state would be calling palliative care specialist Baroness Ilora Findlay to give evidence and that she would testify to the importance of an accurate diagnosis.
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