Hannah Cartwright wants her terminally ill mother to die like a dog. Like a beloved, cherished dog: gently stroked by a loving owner, beside a qualified professional who will inject a measured dose to make the end arrive quickly. Cartwright is the heroine of Below Luck Level (Penguin), my novel about assisted suicide. Fortunately for me, it is fiction. Authors of nonfiction books on the same topic risk arrest and imprisonment, especially if the book is published in New Zealand.
Lesley Martin was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2004, following the publication of her memoir in which she described how she gave her terminally ill mother an overdose of morphine. South African Professor Sean Davison was recently sentenced to five months of house arrest after being found guilty of the same crime.
But you will not be arrested if you live in Oregon in the United States, or Switzerland, or Holland. You are safe in Canada, following a recent legal amendment. Paradoxically, South Africa, which boasts one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world, denies its citizens a right afforded to its dogs.
Davison, who lives in Cape Town, is determined to change this. What started as an act of kindness has evolved into a crusade for this softly spoken academic. He does not query the ruling of the New Zealand judge: “I pleaded guilty,” he said. “I broke the law.” What Davison is trying to change, both in New Zealand and South Africa, is the law itself: “A lack of assisted-dying legislation makes criminals of non-criminals.”
His words have an impact because he speaks from first-hand experience. Before We Say Goodbye, his moving diary of the last days of his mother’s life, is the human drama of an ordinary family now scarred by an act of loving compassion. Davison’s mother, a vibrant, well-rounded woman with a long career as a general practitioner and psychiatrist, made a coherent decision that she had lived long enough when cancer flexed its cruel fingers. She asked her son to crush the morphine tablets she had saved into a solution she could drink.
Davison did not expect to be arrested for murder when he returned to New Zealand for a conference following his mother’s death. It seems bizarre to South Africans who live with a daily avalanche of real crime that there were eight detectives assigned to the case – they even sifted through his garbage. What were they expecting to find? Did they imagine other New Zealand octogenarians might be in danger from this gentle academic?
Davison is now on the executive committee of Dignity SA, which plans to approach Parliament with a Bill approving physician-assisted suicide. Those who would like to support this Bill can visit dignitysa.com.
Barbara Erasmus is a freelance journalist and author based in Cape Town