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South African atheists go to court over right to die

In South Africa, an atheist advocate and doctor have added their voices to a crucial legal challenge to determine whether or not euthanasia should be legalised in South Africa.

Request for PAS and PAE

Medical doctor Suzanne Walter, a palliative care specialist, and her patient Diethelm Harck, who have both been diagnosed with terminal diseases, are hoping to persuade Johannesburg High Court Judge Raylene Keightly to develop the law to allow both physician assisted suicide (PAS) and physician assisted euthanasia (PAE). Joining their cause as friends of the court are Advocate Bruce Leech and Dr Paul Rowe, both atheists.

Christian values

In an affidavit filed with the court, Leech says public policy is rooted in the Christian ethic inherited via South Africa’s colonialist legal systems first of Roman-Dutch Law and then of English Law. So too is the HPCSA’s rule against PAS and PAE.

Leech said: “Christian values are imposed directly and indirectly on people who do not necessarily share those values. I do not share these beliefs and neither does Dr Rowe. And once it is shown that this is the case, the retention of this policy is plainly a limitation imposed on the right under the Constitution to freely exercise one’s religious choice and freely believe or think what one chooses. The decriminalisation of PAS and PAE does not in any way infringe on the rights of those who do not believe in PAS and PAE, based on their own religious and moral convictions.”


The HPCSA – and the State respondents, the Ministers of Health, Justice, and the National Director of Public Prosecutions – are all opposing the application.


The last time the issue was raised in court in South Africa was in 2015 when lawyer Robert Stransham-Ford, who was dying, launched an urgent application in the Pretoria High Court for an order that a doctor be legally entitled to give him a lethal dose to end his life.

It was an individual application, not done in the public interest. Judge Hans Fabricius ruled in his favour, but unbeknown to the judge, Stansham-Ford died, naturally, two hours before the judgment. The case went to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the State respondents fearing a precedent. The SCA ruled that this was not the right matter to develop the common law and that Judge Fabricius’s ruling was moot and had no effect since Stansham-Ford had died already.

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Atheists go to court over right to die | GroundUp