‘I want to die like a dog’

Review: Vivien Horler

The Price of Mercy – a fight for the right to die with dignity, by Sean Davison (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

It is fitting to start this review with a Tutu quote, as his name comes up many times in Sean Davison’s book, usually as a source of comfort and inspiration.

Davison certainly needed the comfort because he faced a strong likelihood of getting three life sentences for murder, but I think the necessary inspiration came from his own resolution.

In the epilogue to this moving and gripping memoir he says, in an echo of Tutu’s words: “I could have chosen to do nothing, but doing nothing is in fact doing something – it is choosing to turn a blind eye and thereby condoning the suffering.”

Davison is a UWC professor of biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape, and the man who famously helped his terminally ill mother die in New Zealand in 2010. There he was convicted of assisted suicide and given five months’ house arrest.

His account of that experience is the subject of his first book, Before We Say Goodbye.

He returned to South Africa where he helped found Dignity SA, the organisation that is fighting for a change in South African law to enable mentally competent adults to choose a dignified death. Through his activism he came into contact with many people who were desperate to die, but who, because of their physical frailties, needed help to achieve this.

Davison subsequently aided three men to die, one with motor neurone disease, one with Locked-In Syndrome and one a quadriplegic. One breathed in helium with his head in a plastic bag, while two were given Nembutal, the drug used – among other reasons – by vets to put dogs down.

This fact prompted Exit International’s famous “I want to die like a dog” placards at a street demonstration in Melbourne in 2016.

The first person Davison helped was a quadriplegic medical doctor, Anrich Burger, who in 2013 drank water laced with Nembutal.

Davison writes: “My role was merely to do for him what he could not do himself. I was his functioning arms and legs, nothing more. I crushed the tablets and mixed them with water in his drinking bottle.”

Before he drank the water, Burger quoted Ramón Sampedro, another quadriplegic who took his own life: “I will renounce the most humiliating form of slavery – to be a living head tied to a dead body.”

Years went by after Burger’s death. In 2018 the Davison family – Sean, wife Raine, and three young children – were staying in Wollongong in New South Wales, where Sean was on sabbatical. They were happy there, and making serious plans to emigrate. Then Davison received an email from an SA detective to contact him at Sea Point police station.

He assumed it was to do with the DNA forensic work his UWC lab did. He responded he was in Australia, but would get in touch with the detective when next in Cape Town.

In September 2018 Davison was in the city for a conference, and visited Sea Point police station as he had promised. But to his shock he was abruptly arrested, cuffed, put into a cell – and charged with Burger’s murder.

He still doesn’t know why it took five years for the police to pounce, but has some theories.

Obviously he could not return to Australia, and by Christmas that year his family had joined him back in their home in Pinelands, all ideas of emigration put on hold.

As was widely reported, during his High Court trial in Cape Town Davison entered into a plea-bargain with the state, which made him feel he was selling his soul. This was because for the plea bargain to be accepted, he had to plead guilty to murder, a claim he had always rejected. He had helped people to die, yes, but had not murdered them.

The plea bargain was successful, however, and after his conviction he was given three years of house arrest and a suspended eight-year prison term.

Davison loved to hike on Table Mountain, and the idea of being jailed for life, of not being able to see his children grow up, was terrifying. From the time of his arrest to his emergence from house arrest in June 2022, he and his family had a rollercoaster of experiences, many of them appallingly upsetting.

He was told that should he break the terms of the house arrest, he would be instantly jailed for 72 hours. If he did it three times, he would go to jail to serve the eight-year sentence.

Remember the five weeks of total lockdown in 2020?  Davison had that for three whole years. Yes, it was much better than being in a prison cell, but it was still tough, both on him and his family.

So, given his experience, will he keep on with his quest? While I doubt that in future he will physically help people to die, he is still committed to the cause of getting the law changed. He believes criminalising assisted dying is inhumane.

At one point while he was awaiting trial, he visited his GP because his stress levels were off the charts. The doctor told him he and most doctors he knew supported Dignity SA’s cause, but could not speak out.

This wasn’t good enough for Davison: “I leave his clinic… disillusioned with the silence of doctors. I feel it is the medical profession that is most to blame for the lack of progression on law change. They are the ones at the coalface of death and dying – they know better than most the dreadful deaths so many people are forced to experience every day – but they say and do nothing… The worst sinners are those who know what’s happening and keep their mouths shut.”

I think the Arch would agree.

  • Warning footnote: Davison says it is possible – though illegal – to obtain Nembutal without a prescription in South Africa. While awaiting trial he became aware of a man selling it here on Gumtree. Davison bought a bottle and analysed it, only to discover it was considerably diluted. “Whatever the final product, it would certainly not end a life peacefully, and could possibly cause serious damage. A horrendous prospect.”








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