Assisted Suicide Advocate Pleads Not Guilty to Third Murder Charge

After his arrest in 2018 for the alleged premeditated murder of Dr Anrich Burger, Professor Sean Davison now faces a third murder charge, for the death of athlete Richard Holland. The DignitySA founder continues to be the ‘poster boy’ for the debate on the legalisation of assisted euthanasia in South Africa.

Controversial euthanasia activist Sean Davison made a brief appearance in the Cape Town magistrates’ court on 29 April 2019 to face a third charge of premeditated murder.

According to the charge sheet, Davison was accused of “unlawfully and intentionally” killing Richard Holland by “administering a lethal amount of drugs” on around 8 November 2015 in Constantia.

Davison pleaded not guilty to all charges in the case.

Holland was a 32-year-old triathlete who suffered a brain injury which left him with locked-in syndrome (a condition where the sufferer is conscious, but paralysed).

Davison was first arrested in his Pinelands, Cape Town, home on 18 September 2018.

At the time, he was arrested in connection with the 2013 death of Dr Anrich Burger, a close friend of Davison’s who was left a quadriplegic after a car accident in 2005. An article published in Daily Maverick said Davison sat with the deceased in a hotel room at the Waterfront, where Burger “consumed a lethal dose of phenobarbital”. This was the first charge of premeditated murder against him.

In November 2018 he faced a second murder charge, for the death of Justin Varian, who suffered from the motor-neuron disease. Davison was accused of placing a bag over Varian’s head and pumping in helium to suffocate him.

Davison, who holds dual South African and New Zealand citizenship, first made headlines in 2011 when he was placed under house arrest in New Zealand for helping his mother die. She was terminally ill with cancer.

Davison, a professor in the biotechnology department at the University of the Western Cape, is the founder of DignitySA, a “right to die” organisation at the forefront of lobbying for South Africa to legalise assisted euthanasia, formally known as Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS). In an interview with News24, Davison makes a distinction between assisted suicide and what he terms “assisted dying”.

“Assisted dying is when a person is in the dying process, near the end of life,” he said. In the case of assisted suicide, a person does not have to be near death or terminally ill.

Under South African law, suicide, or taking one’s own life, is not seen as a criminal act.

Since Davison’s initial South African arrest, the issue of assisted euthanasia has been heavily contested.

Some see the criminalisation of assisted euthanasia as unconstitutional. In a Daily Maverick article published in 2018, Pierre de Vos argued it was a violation of the constitutional right to “dignity” and “security and control over (one’s) body”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed support for Davison after his 2018 arrest.

On the other hand, religion is a common motivator against assisted euthanasia, where the act of ending another’s life is akin to murder or playing God”.

At present, the National Health Act makes provision for a “living will” which is a document written by the patient while they are still in good mental and physical health. It provides consent to end the person’s life in the event that they cannot make the decision for themselves.

In 2018, the National Health Amendment Bill (a private member’s bill) was tabled as a step to ensure that the living will held legal clout. In its present state, the living will was seen as an inadequate provision for assisted euthanasia as those acting on the ill person’s wishes could still be criminalised.

Davison’s bail has been extended to 24 May 2019. DM

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