Cape motor-neurone disease patient argues for right to die

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In spite of a lot of literature being available online about self-administered suicide, Diethelm Harck, who suffers from motor-neurone disease (MND), is adamant that when the time comes and he chooses to go this route, he wants a doctor to administer the lethal dose that would kill him.

According to a Pretoria News report, Harck took the stand – virtually from his Western Cape home – for the third day in his application, together with his palliative care physician, Sue Walter, for the law to change which is barring doctors from assisting terminally ill patients to die.

Both he and Walter, who suffers from multiple myeloma, said when the time comes and they feel the need to, they want to opt for euthanasia or the assisted suicide route. While their legal challenge is due to only be heard later this year in the Gauteng High Court (Johannesburg), the pair are now testifying before a commissioner, as they are not sure what the future holds for them.

Harck said his deterioration would be progressive. His muscles are weakening and eventually his diaphragm will stop working, so that he is unable to breathe.

“From what I have seen and witnessed, MND death is not peaceful,” he said. “I have seen a number of colleagues and [support] group members pass away. They had no way to communicate. And they could not breathe easily.”

“We once visited a young girl suffering from MND, who was totally paralysed. She could only speak with the help of an eye gaze machine. When Lynn [Harck’s life partner] asked her what she feared the most, she said not being able to die.”

Counsel for the Health Professions Council of SA, Advocate Adrian D’Óliveira, questioned Harck at length as to why he wanted to go this route. Harck stressed that while he loved life at this stage and "absolutely" did not want to die now, he feared when the time came when he wanted to die, he could not. He said it was his human right to decide whether he wanted to die when the time came. The primary decision should be with the patient, he said.

D’Óliveira also said that the HPCSA will argue that if the court changed the law, it would be open to abuse. People may feel they have to choose euthanasia, due to family pressures.

 

The media and the public have been barred from hearing the evidence. GroundUp reports that this is to protect the patients' confidentiality. Judge Neels Claassen is sitting on commission hearing the evidence ahead of the trial.

GroundUp reports that Walter is expected to refer to patient cases in her evidence. Advocate Hendrik van Nieuwenhuizen said Walter would refer to about five patients. The documents had been redacted, removing patients names and other personal details. On this basis, he did not believe the hearing had to be in camera.

However, D’Oliveira said they had many patient cases to present and it was impossible to say which ones would be used because that depended on the evidence. It would be difficult to redact them all and there was a possibility that the front of a file may slip into view at the hearing, which is being heard via Zoom.

Advocate van Nieuwenhuizen said last week it had been agreed between the parties that Walter’s evidence in chief and cross examination would be heard in camera and they were approaching a judge for an order directing this. He referred to case law, which affirmed that in terms of the Hippocratic oath, a doctor had to “keep silent” about information regarding a patient.

He also said the HPCSA deemed it “unprofessional conduct” for a doctor to divulge any information about a patient without their express consent.

 

Full Pretoria News report (Open access)

 

Full GroundUp report (Open access)

 

 

See also MedicalBrief archives:

First evidence heard in Gauteng High Court ‘right to die’ case

 

Doctor and patient in new SA bid to legalise euthanasia

 

SA constitution ‘a basis’ for euthanasia — Human Rights Commission head

 

Euthanasia 44 years later: A case of déjà vu

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