“I want to exercise my right to die tomorrow”

By Elizabeth Thomas for GlobalJusticeBlog.com

Liz Thomas_PicOn a daily basis, we see a fair number of mentally ill clients. Since starting my work with the SAHRC, I’ve read complaints that range from illegible markings on a napkin to eloquent quasi-slam poetry about the patriarchy of educational institutions. You never know where that person is coming from, or whether the complaint is real until you start searching between the lines.

Today when the secretary for the office wandered into my office at 8 am with a clipboard, I glazed over the client information to see in all caps, “I want to exercise my right to die tomorrow”. The rest was a blank page. I tried not to look as shocked as I actually was. The secretary pointed her finger to her head and waved it in a circular motion, “something’s not right up there with this one”. Nevertheless, I walked into the intake room and asked how I could help. I spent the next hour trying to convince a homeless Rwandan man not to commit suicide after after hearing his life story, which included jarring details about him watching every member of his family be killed and his experience as a child soldier.

He had no complaint that we could file. There was no way that we could help him in any legal sense. He was already granted asylum status to work and study in South Africa but now wanted his mind “to be free”, which he believed was his right to decide when and how he would die. My immediate reaction was silence. We sat for a moment until I could gather myself and explain that his “right to die” wasn’t actually a right in this country. He explained that it didn’t matter if it was or wasn’t a right, he just wanted to make sure that no one would stop him if he attempted to take his life because that was the only way he could be free from the demons in his mind.

In the last few years in both the US and South Africa, there has been a lot of controversy over the “right to die” and whether or not this was a protected right. Most recently in April of this year, a South African court granted the doctor who cared for a man dying of terminal prostate cancer the right of protection from prosecution after the man died. By granting the doctor protection for prosecution, had the man died with his help, this case may have paved the way for the addition of a right to death to the Constitution, but not just yet. While the man with cancer died of natural causes, the judge in the case decided in favor of the assisted suicide, despite the fact that the ruling was never carried out by the doctor himself. While South Africa may not have a “right to die” it does have a protected “right to human dignity” very broadly worded into its constitution. The right to dignity may one day soon include the right to decide the time and place of one’s death, but so far, it is not completely set in stone.

After collecting his papers, I rushed back into the office to speak with one of our senior legal officers. “Can we recommend someone to a mental health facility? How do we go about doing that?”, she walked back into the consultation room with me and immediately recognized the client. He had been into our office several times before and told the same story to others, requesting the right to die, and each time she had recommended he seek counseling.  This time, he refused to see any therapist or take any advice in that area. So we continued. We delved into his story further, he removed part of his shirt to show us the scars on his chest, he broke into tears. We waited. There was simply nothing more we could do but listen and continue to plead with him to continue living. He refused. He reiterated how there was nothing left in this life for him, and his freedom would only come when he rested in peace.

An hour later he gathered his things, thanked us for our time and walked with his head down to the door. Will he come back to this office to plead the same story, or will he actually go through with what he’s been threatening for the last three years? I’m still unsure, and the thought weighs on me. He has a right to decide what he does with his own life, maybe I do agree that he should be allowed the dignity to decide when and how he dies, but did I do enough to try and prevent this? He came here pleading for help. He came here for solace. He came here to ask if we could help him die. Did we help him do that by not forcing him to seek psychological aid? Can we even do that?

My head is still swimming with questions about this case. I hate leaving something like this without knowing what will happen to him, but I hope he decides to keep trying and I don’t read his name in the papers tomorrow.