Dr Sean Davison, a University of the Western Cape biotechnology professor, made world headlines recently when he was convicted of matricide in New Zealand, for helping his terminally ill mother end months of pain and suffering by swallowing a lethal dose of morphine.
It is estimated that many people die in South Africa by assisted suicide, but it is still taboo.
Davison has become a vocal activist for the right to die with dignity. He speaks to Sue Grant-Marshall about the dilemma facing terminally ill people, and those who care for them
What has affected you most since you were charged with matricide for your role in your mother’s suicide, and for which you served a six-month house arrest sentence in New Zealand?
There is so much, I hardly know where to start. Seeing my mother’s name linked with mine and the words, "attempted murder", was shocking and frankly, unbelievable.
Were you expecting the arrest?
Not at all; it was shattering. Even after my arrest, I thought it would just blow over, and charges would be dropped.
How do you see what you did?
Helping my mother to die was an act of kindness. She was in the terminal stages of cancer. She’d gone on a hunger strike to end her life; she even asked how long it took Irish activist Bobby Sands to die. But each morning, when I went in to draw back her curtains, there she was, alive and in pain. We even joked about how she just wouldn’t die.
She was able to joke? That’s amazing!
Yes. Each morning she would say, "I’m immortal", as if to provoke a bolt of lightening from the sky. Eventually, she got to the point where she was rotting in bed, unable to move her arms or legs; her skin was almost coming off when I turned her over to prevent bedsores. In medical terms, her flesh was decomposing to keep her vital organs functioning.
Taking the morphine pills was her idea, wasn’t it?
Yes. It’s one reason I wrote the books, Before We Say Goodbye, and After We Said Goodbye ( Penguin). My story is not unique, and I hope my books help others in similar dilemmas.
Your mother told you what to do, didn’t she?
She had been hoarding the pills from her weekly prescription. When she asked me to give them to her, I said it was too late — she was having such difficulty swallowing, it would be impossible to swallow the 18 pills she needed for a lethal dose.
What was her next plan?
She told me to crush and mix them with water. This hadn’t crossed my mind, though I work in a science laboratory. I had to help her drink them, as she’d lost the ability to move her arms.
If you ever have any remorse — and I gather from your books that you don’t — could it be not having given her that lethal dose earlier, as she suffered so much?
The court gave me the opportunity to show remorse, and I said, "No". In the same situation, I would do it again. I had, of course, to wait for an adamant and firm request from my mother, when she was fully sensible.
There is surely something primal and terrible about seeing the person who gave birth to you lying naked, vulnerable, in such an awful state in front of you?
This is the whole point of helping someone like my mother, such an independent, intelligent psychiatrist with a Mensa IQ, who had travelled the world with us. She loved books, her art and her gardening. It was such a contrast between her vibrant life and terrible death. Anyone who judges me, or you, has to put themselves in the same situation first.
During your trial, you learnt from the police that your elder sister, Mary, had given them your original, self-incriminating diary, in which you described your role in your mother’s death. Why do you think she did that?
I think that Mary, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, did feel a little guilty about not being there when my mother was so ill, and dying — and I was there, for months, from South Africa. She is after all a doctor, a gerontologist, and maybe my diary made her feel exposed. Prior to sending my diary to the police, she had also taken out a court injunction in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the book’s publication.
Have you spoken to Mary since?
There’s been no communication between us and probably never will be. I am very close to my other sister, Jo, and my brother, Fergus. He came over from London, so my mother was also able to tell him she wanted to die. My sisters have not spoken to each other for most of their lives.
The moment people meet you, they tell you stories of helping their own family members to die. That must be hard?
I thought my life would return to normal after I returned to South Africa, but I’ve been inundated with accounts similar to my mother’s. There have been some terrible stories, and it is hard to listen to them, but I am sure these suicide-assisted deaths have always happened. It’s just been taboo to speak about them.
Also, people are living a lot longer now?
Indeed we are; consequently, more people are suffering from terminal illnesses, and wanting some control over their deaths. I’ve read reports that successful suicide attempts by the elderly — those over 65 — are three times higher than in younger people. Sadly, very often suicide attempts go horribly wrong, and the person ends up in a worse state. The elderly know when they are dying, and should have the comfort of knowing they will be allowed to die, and in dignity.
You are director of DignitySA, that is seeking a change in the law to allow for assisted dying; is it true doctors attending your talks have raised their hands to show they already do this?
Two doctors did so at a recent talk, yes, but I think it’s only retired doctors who speak up. After all, the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t allow for this.
How is your immediate family handling this, I know your wife Raine has been really supportive?
She’s an amazingly strong person, a really rational and careful thinker. She’s helped me every step of the way. I was in Australia at a DNA forensics conference when the big earthquake hit Christchurch, on South Island, where my sister Jo lives. I wasn’t sure whether to visit her to help her, when I knew the police were interviewing people about my mother’s death.
What was Raine’s advice?
She suggested that I go back to New Zealand sooner rather than later. "Let’s get it over with while our sons are still so young. I don’t want you arrested in front of them if we visit New Zealand in a few years time." So I went.
What do you think the effect, long term, will be on your sons?
My fear was that in time to come, they will hear that their father tried to murder their gran. It’s another reason I wrote the books. I want them to know and understand fully what happened.
Are you religious?
No. I’m spiritual in the sense that I am still seeking answers to life, our existence and its meaning.
What is your response to people who say only God can decide when a life should end?
I do not accept this perspective. I believe we make our own decisions and face the consequences. We cannot lay everything at the feet of God.
You are professor of biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and you head its DNA Forensics Laboratory. You write warmly of how the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Brian O’Connell, and staff supported you through this crisis, yet we’re still a really conservative society aren’t we?
I was amazed. Attempted murder is a very serious charge, and any other university might have suspended me until after the trial. But the UWC has a proud record of supporting human rights. They said they agreed with what I did. "It was an act of compassion," they said. Brian even said he would do the same thing in my shoes.
You came back to South Africa in May this year after serving your sentence. Can you get on with life or are the international, and local media still interested?
I prefer not to be in the media spotlight, but I recognise that my story provides a focal point for discussion on a law change on assisted dying.
And, it’s not just the media adding to the pressure on you I think?
My life will certainly not return to normal while I’m spending my evenings assisting people who want to go to Dignitas Clinics in Switzerland to die. Under South African law, they have no choice and I feel it is my duty to help them. I was going to do so using some of the royalties from my books, but there’s a risk associated with that, and I don’t ever again want to go through such an ordeal.
What made you help to found DignitySA?
I received overwhelming support from people in South Africa from the time I was first arrested. Now that my ordeal is over, I want to give something back. We’re making such good progress in terms of the draft Bill on legislation. It will enable the terminally ill to be assisted in dying a dignified death.
It’s interesting to think South Africa might end up with such a progressive law in what’s essentially a conservative country?
I believe our society is receptive to the idea of changing the law to allow voluntary euthanasia in a very carefully monitored context, as in Oregon in the US. I acknowledge that not everyone will agree, but the issue should be openly debated. We’ve led the world before in cultural and political reform; I believe we can do so again in this complex, moral issue.
You’ve experienced probably the worst stress someone can face. How do you handle stress?
I put things into perspective. I did the right thing for my mother. I don’t seek revenge on my sister.
I know how much emphasis you put on exercise and being healthy, and you are slim. So what do you eat — let’s start with breakfast?
Muesli, yoghurt and fruit, 365 days of the year.
It’s a small one, bread and cheese on the whole.
Chinese cuisine because of Raine initially; she’s Chinese, but I now prefer it to ours.
You love coffee and so did your mother; you made it in the special way she wanted it every day when you were caring for her.
It’s a wonderful legal drug!
What’s your favourite tipple?
I was taught never to say "no" when offered a glass of champagne. (a chuckle). But, I don’t drink on the whole. I’ll have a beer occasionally, but I love ice cream and dark chocolate. Those are my true indulgence.
Do you take vitamin supplements?
No. I eat healthily.
What exercise do you do?
I go for a one hour walk on the mountain, near Rhodes Memorial with the dogs, four times a week. I used to run marathons, but now I swim at UWC. There is a heated, indoor pool and I swim there three times a week. I am often the only person there.
What’s the least healthy thing you do?
I am a salt addict, like my mother was. She put it on everything and had little pots of it around the house. It’s very addictive.
Have you ever had a health scare?
No. I had a cough during my court case and house arrest that I couldn’t get rid of, and went to see a doctor there. It was the first time I’d ever been to one in my life. The doctor couldn’t believe it. I don’t even have a doctor in South Africa, and I’ve been here for 21 years now.
How do you like to relax?
My exercise is like a meditation. I go for long walks on the mountain, alone. That’s my religion and my church; I go at twilight time. It’s so peaceful.
Where do you escape to?
Beaches with the dogs. I love water and the sea, it’s powerful, and has a meditative effect. As a family, we like Langebaan, the bleak openness of it and the down to earth people there.
What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?
Taking a bus to meet my mother over a pass between Tibet and Nepal. It was a three-day drive on a steep, winding, narrow road through a mountain pass with a precipitous drop to the valley below.
Who gave your career a spur?
My microbiology doctorate supervisor, Dr James Kalmakoff. He’s been there for me all my life, and now he’s helping me with DignitySA. He’s been my mentor and my father figure.
What was your defining moment?
The morphine moment. The moment I helped my mother to die. It changed my life forever.
If you could edit your life, what would you change?
Nothing really, no real regrets. I’ve had a lucky and privileged life.
Any pet peeves?
Plastic. Everything’s made out of plastic. Somehow, that reflects the world we live in.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Wherever you go, go with all your heart. That came from my mother.
Where is paradise?
On Table Mountain, alone, in the evening. It’s important to have time alone. In some relationships, you feel too scared to say that.
What are your hopes?
We should be allowed to choose our time of death if we are suffering at the end. Freedom of choice is the hallmark of our human identity.
And your dreams?
That by the time my young boys reach adulthood, all people in our society will be treated as equals.