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Taking Issue: Tutu dares to allow assisted dying




Anglican Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu’s statement last Friday, supporting legalisation of assisted suicide in South Africa for desperately ill people who want to die, opens a Pandora’s box. Most legal systems and religious faiths – including among Jews – reject his stance.

The prevalent Jewish view is that only G-d gives life and can choose to end it. Official Anglican Church policy opposes assisted dying.

For people suffering unbearably, says Tutu, “immeasurable comfort” is afforded by knowing assisted death is possible. Speaking at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, he said he had prepared for his own death, and “I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs”. He wanted to enter the next phase of life’s journey “in the manner of my choice”.

The contentious legal aspects are illustrated by a Spanish man’s case documented in a 2004 film, The Sea Inside, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It relates the 28-year campaign of a man left quadriplegic after a diving accident for the right to end his life, which was illegal in Spanish law.

In 1998 he succeeded in dying with dignity, after planning his death with help from loved ones in a way that no-one could be charged with the crime. In one part of the film he implores the person he is closest to: “If you love me, help me to die.”

Opponents of legalising assisted suicide argue that it opens the door to a host of wrongful acts, such as helping depressed people to die when other treatments may help them. Or assisted suicide for purposes of other, less noble agendas.

What if a sick patient cannot communicate the wish to die? One answer is signing a “Living Will” while of sound mind, stipulating that in the case of illness with no chance of recovery or quality of life, he or she should be allowed to die rather than be kept alive artificially. Rabbis, doctors and lawyers in the Jewish community have been presented with Living Wills to hold for congregants, patients and clients.

Some of these professionals, however, refuse to accept Living Wills since it violates their beliefs, forcing individuals to find other places to lodge them to ensure no-one blocks implementing them.

Once feeding tubes or other artificial means of maintaining life are connected, the dominant Jewish view is that they cannot be removed, since that would amount to murdering the patient. However, whether such life support should be installed in the first place is a choice doctors, family or designated executors can make.

Tutu supports the organisation DignitySA, led by former University of Western Cape lecturer Sean Davison who was arrested in New Zealand for helping his cancer-ridden mother to end her life in 2006. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies will hold its 2018 conference in South Africa.

DignitySA is fighting a case where the ministers of justice and health and National Prosecuting Authority are appealing last year’s judgment by the Pretoria High Court, allowing terminally ill lawyer Robin Stransham-Ford, who had cancer, to end his life. Stransham-Ford died two hours before the judgment was delivered. Lawyer Sally Buitendag who supports the right to die, said: “Whatever the outcome, this case will end up in the Constitutional Court.”

Anyone who has watched a loved one suffering terribly with an incurable condition, must feel some sympathy for the argument of allowing or assisting that person to die with dignity at his or her own choosing, and end the wretchedness. Tutu has long been a courageous voice of morality and reason. Given the fervent, opposing viewpoints regarding assisted dying, will his stance add to his moral standing, or detract from it? 


Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog


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  1. nat cheiman

    Oct 19, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    ‘As I understand, Christians have the old and the new testaments. The old testament is clear on suicide, killing murder and euthanasia.

    Presumably the Archbishop has decided that the aforementioned testaments need to be amended. ‘

  2. David B

    Oct 31, 2016 at 5:44 am

    ‘All Hail Tutu on this one. Not often that I have agreed with Tutu but in this case , irrespective of religious beliefs and traditions.

    I would back him all the way as I have witnessed too many people, parents,family and friends who have suffered above and beyond for religious and sometimes selfish and other beliefs, when all they wanted was to die with a bit of dignity and have peace’

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