The right to die is about human dignity

Carol de Swardt spent her last evening looking at a sunset from a hotel roof
AT PEACE: Carol de Swardt spent her last evening looking at a sunset from a hotel roof

 Last Wednesday, Carol de Swardt died peacefully at Pegasos Clinic in Liestal, Switzerland.

Unlike most people, De Swardt knew she was going to die because she had chosen the date of her death.

She had decided she wanted to die and had travelled to Switzerland — one of the only countries that allows foreigners to have an assisted suicide — to realise this.

The 63-year-old mother from George had been living with cancer for more than a decade.

After developing squamous carcinoma and losing one of her legs, her quality of life had rapidly deteriorated.

She had undergone 10 operations and lived in constant pain for many years.

This led to her decision to end her life.

But it wasn’t possible to have assisted suicide at home, where she would have been surrounded by her loved ones in a familiar environment.

Because assisted suicide is illegal in SA, De Swardt died in a foreign country, having had to pay a lot of money to make the trip possible.

And while her children supported her decision, none of them could be there to hold her hand for the last time.

This needs to change.

A huge part of me was glad when my mother died almost seven years ago.

Less than eight weeks before her death, she had been diagnosed with terminal metastatic gastrointestinal cancer.

By the time the diagnosis was made, the cancer had spread to her brain.

When she was admitted at Leratong Hospital in Gauteng, doctors immediately considered operating on her.

But after conducting scans, it was clear nothing could be done to save her.

She died just days after being admitted.

I had the misfortune of seeing her hours before she took her final breath.

She was lying in bed, wrapped in blankets, with machines bleeping everywhere.

Though she had already fallen into a coma from which she would never awake, streaks of dry tears were visible on her cheeks.

She was shaking uncontrollably, her jaundiced eyes semi-open.

It’s a sight to which no child should be condemned — and one that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

But I said it then and I’ll say it again: my mom’s death was the best possible outcome.

Had she survived, it is likely she would have been in a vegetative state or very close.

Her quality of life would have deteriorated dramatically.

She would have been a shadow of her former vivacious self.

More than this, she would have lost the one thing she valued most — her independence.

My mom was fiercely independent.

It was simultaneously the source of her greatest strength and her greatest weakness.

Losing that would have not just devastated her, but it would have taken away her desire to continue living.

This is why I deem her death the best possible outcome of her illness.

I know, without a shadow of doubt, that if she had been given the option, she would have chosen death.

The right to die is a fundamental human right and it should be legalised in SA.

Many of those who oppose this do it on religious grounds.

But religion cannot be used to deny people the freedom of self-determination, especially in a secular country such as ours.

The bill of rights, a cornerstone of our democracy, enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of equality, freedom and human dignity.

The latter should extend to the right to have assisted suicide for people such as De Swardt and my mom — people who are suffering immeasurably and have no prospects of recovery.

No-one should have to live in so much pain that they are unable to have a fulfilling life.

It denies them of the very human dignity that the constitution affirms.


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