'Every day people are asking for help to die in order to end their hell on earth'
When NZ-born medical scientist Professor Sean Davison disclosed in a redacted book manuscript how he helped his cancer-ridden mother take her own life in Dunedin, he was charged with attempted murder. Today, as he emerges from a three-year home detention sentence for the assisted suicides of three seriously disabled men in South Africa, he argues his case in his second book, The Price of Mercy. This is the first published extract.
Wednesday, 19 September 2018: The past 48 hours have been the most harrowing of my life. I’ve been incarcerated in a prison cell in Cape Town, South Africa, charged with the premeditated murder of Dr Anrich Burger who died five years ago.
Premeditated murder! A charge that carries a minimum life sentence.
When they arrested me yesterday morning, I had been confident, with a clear conscience, that I had not committed a crime, that bail would be granted. Yet the detective in charge had no qualms about clinically informing me that the prosecution would be opposing my bail request in court the following day.
► Calls to pardon those who help dying friends end their lives
► ‘I do acknowledge the anguish you must have felt’ – Justice Minister
► Plea to NZ Governor-General for presidential-style pardon
In the eyes of the law, I will be seen as a repeat offender. In 2011, I was convicted of assisting my terminally ill mother to die in New Zealand. It was extremely probable that the prosecution would insinuate that I hadn’t learned from my past “crime” and that I must now be refused bail and kept behind bars.
A few months earlier, I had received an email from a detective asking me to pay him a visit at the Sea Point police station. At the time, I assumed that it had something to do with the DNA forensics work my lab does for the police. I responded that I was visiting Australia, and I’d let him know when I was next in town, which I subsequently did. In retrospect, I don’t understand why they waited for me to come to them; why didn’t they simply arrest me at my home or at the airport on my arrival? Surely the police must have ways of knowing when a person enters and exits the country?
Yesterday I still had no idea what lay before me when I entered the Sea Point police station. I went cold with shock when I was ushered into a room and immediately charged with murder. I was photographed and fingerprinted, my saliva was taken for DNA profiling. When I asked whether I could make a phone call, the detective threw a jab of sarcasm my way. “This isn’t an American movie – you can make calls until we take your phone.”
Trying hard not to panic, I hurriedly called DignitySA’s administrator, Lee Last, and briefly explained what had happened. DignitySA is the organisation seeking a change to the law on assisted dying. Lee called back a few minutes later to say she had instructed a lawyer in Cape Town and he was already on his way to see me. That gave me an inch of relief.
I then phoned my wife Raine in Australia on a WhatsApp video call. The detectives watched in the background. Raine kept very calm, as she is so expert at doing in crisis situations, but in truth, she must have been terrified. I heard Fia, our four-year old daughter, playing in the room, and felt a sudden, overwhelming need to see the innocence and joy of her face. Yet, as Raine turned to get her, I realised that I didn’t want her to have a memory of seeing me in police custody.
Raine and I communicated in a matter-of-fact way, fully aware of the police detective’s presence. I stressed the fact that if I didn’t get bail, this could be our last conversation until she returned to South Africa. Under the orderly words that were exchanged between us was a deep chasm of helplessness and fear.
Before we had finished our conversation, a middle-aged man in a suit entered the room. He told the detectives that he was my lawyer. Without having the chance to greet him myself, I immediately introduced him to Raine over the video link – I instinctively knew that he might become Raine’s only connection to me if things went really badly and I wasn’t released on bail.
Once the call with Raine ended, the lawyer introduced himself as Josua Greeff, from Mathewson Gess Attorneys; he seemed methodical, unpretentious and down to earth. He explained that DignitySA had given him little background on what was going on. I did get the feeling that he wasn’t particularly keen to be here, which wasn’t exactly encouraging.
But my mind kept whirring. The implications for Raine and the kids were devastating. My family and I had moved to the small city of Wollongong, Australia, at the beginning of this year, 2018. I had decided to take a sabbatical from my work at the University of the Western Cape and we had thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity to explore the option of emigrating. The kids loved their school in Wollongong.
“Now that my sentence is finally drawing to an end, it feels like it was only a moment ago that I closed the front gate and hunkered down at the start of my sentence. I have been asked many times whether I will walk away from the right- to-die campaign after all I’ve been through – not a chance.”
– Sean Davison
Everything had felt so positive that we’d been preparing to take the final steps to make the move permanent. During this time I’d been commuting to South Africa to carry out work commitments, and to attend a conference in Cape Town.
My thoughts were disrupted as the police handcuffed me and I was led to a waiting police vehicle. I was informed that they had a search warrant for my house in Pinelands. I stared out the window as we drove, trying to conceal the fear and dread that now consumed me.
We stood outside my property for some time before entering. It wasn’t the house that had been rented out to tenants that concerned me, but the garage that had been converted into a small flatlet. This was where I stayed and where my laptop sat perched on a desk, housing a litany of potentially damaging evidence. I was even more concerned about a bottle of Nembutal, the drug used for euthanasia that was easily visible when opening the bedroom cupboard; the discovery of this could destroy any chance I had of securing bail.
By now I was sweating. I tried hard to avoid looking towards the flatlet.
The officers now prepared themselves to enter the main house, pulling on gloves, hauling out clipboards and pens, and arming themselves with cameras to record the search. Suddenly one of the arresting detectives stared at the flatlet, puzzled. I felt my pulse quicken. I desperately attempted to distract him.
“It’s going to rain,” I said, trying to sound calm.
“No, I doubt it,” he said, looking up at the threatening sky. He busied himself with his camera. I breathed again. It seemed to have worked. Six detectives then entered the house. I was instructed to follow them as they moved from room to room. They combed through every corner, every cupboard, drawer and rubbish bin. Meticulous in their quest, they zoned into anything that looked vaguely like a drug. They pounced upon my tenants’ medications and dog powder, all of which were carefully sealed in labelled plastic bags to be despatched to the police lab. Then they seized all the computers, cameras and phones the tenants had in the house, clearly assuming that they were mine. They first lined them all up on the dining-room table so that I could confirm the seizure, and sign next to each one that was entered on a list.
“In 2021, New Zealand does change the law to allow for assisted dying for the terminally ill. Since my mother fitted the criteria of who would qualify for such a death, I apply to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to be pardoned … I am still waiting to hear the outcome.”
– Sean Davison
Even though they tried not to leave the house in a mess, the place looked a bit roughed up by the time they were done. I imagined the tenants returning after work and thinking that they had been burgled.
Once the house had been searched, I was struck by renewed panic as we walked past the garage flatlet. I avoided looking in that direction, conscious of trying not to give anything away through my body language. Again, the same detective stopped and stared at it. It certainly had the appearance of accommodation with a large glass sliding door, windows, and closed curtains. My heart picked up speed. They had a search warrant to search the entire property so I was certain that this was next.
Again, I went for the distraction technique. “I still think rain is coming.”
“Maybe, but not soon.” The policeman sounded unconvinced. To my immense relief, we made our way right past the flatlet, got back into the police vehicle and left.
* * * * *
Back at the police station, I was led straight to a bare holding cell. Now I was truly trapped, enveloped in a dark hole from which there was no escape. Although it was already mid-September, the month of spring, it was freezing inside the cell. The wind whistled through the windows on either side of the cell, leading straight to the outside. There was neither a bed, nor a mattress, just a concrete bench to sit or lie on. On entering, I was given two threadbare blankets. A toilet bowl stood in one corner and a basin with a single tap in another. Over the next interminable hours, I endlessly paced up and down, trying to drive the extreme fear of a prison sentence out of my head. I couldn’t imagine the horror of spending time in jail. I have always lived for the outdoors. I go for mountain hikes most days. Just the thought of being confined to four walls in a tiny cell day after day was like hell on earth.
Later the guard brought me “dinner”: two brown-bread sandwiches, each with a smear of jam. Both the bread and the jam tasted stale.
“There are good laws and bad laws. Apartheid was a law, and it was a bad one. Slavery was a law, and it too was heinous. Criminalising assisted dying is also inhumane, and I believe that in time to come this too will become evident.”
– Sean Davison
It was hard to keep track of time. I was unsure of how many hours had passed but I guessed it was around 7pm. I truly began to understand the reality of claustrophobia. I had felt it earlier, when they had cuffed me and driven me to my house with the heater in the police vehicle turned up full blast. It had been so hot that I was desperate to get my jersey off but had been unable to.
I looked down at my shoes. Before I was locked in this cell my belt and shoelaces were taken. A few minutes later one of the detectives had returned and said he needed to check that I wasn’t still wearing my belt. I assured him it had been removed, while at the same time lifting my jersey to show him clearly that there was no belt holding up my trousers. He told me to turn around because he wanted to check from behind. As I turned, he grabbed my buttocks, squeezed hard and burst out laughing, then walked away, locking the door. Intentional humiliation? On a bigger scale, it seemed like minor sexual harassment, but it was still traumatic, corrupt and weird on top of everything else.
* * * * *
I sit on the cold floor. My mind can’t stop spinning. Sleep seems like an impossibility. I can’t believe that just 10 hours earlier I had been making my final preparations to fly back to Australia to rejoin my family. I had only ever intended to be in Cape Town for two short weeks to attend a conference, but now, in what felt like a split second, I am suddenly trapped and facing a lengthy jail sentence.
My heart aches at the thought of my three young children back in Australia, 11 000 kilometres away. How will they cope without me? How will I cope without them?
As the night drags on, my fears intensify.
What if I am imprisoned, will I be sacked from my job? The last time I was arrested in New Zealand in 2010, for my mother’s death, my university had backed me. I was seen as a man who had committed a difficult act of compassion, which fitted with the university’s humanitarian principles. With new senior management at the university, and me committing the same “crime” again, would they still stand by me?
What if the police realised that there was a flatlet on my property and went back to do another search after they had locked me in the cell? And what if they discovered that the computers they seized were not mine, but the tenants’?
Why didn’t they arrest me five years ago, at the time of Anrich Burger’s death? And why not at the airport as soon as I arrived back in the country? Perhaps they had been waiting for the conference I attended last week. I was chairing the biennial conference of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies in Cape Town and the police must have been monitoring it, hoping I would say something incriminating in my presentations.
What would the World Federation do with its president arrested for going beyond the law, to help someone to die? Although our organisation comprises members from 52 countries, united in our campaign to change the laws on euthanasia, how would they feel about me taking the law into my own hands? I was elected president at the conference in Amsterdam in 2016, and had just been re-elected for another two years at the Cape Town convention.
Pacing up and down that tiny, dank prison cell, it is agonising to realise that this horror is only the beginning.
Dr Anrich Burger
The night seems to drag on forever. I eventually find a way to block out the all-night lights, making a little tent by tying two corners of one blanket to the bars of the prison door and tucking the other two corners under my body as I lie on the floor. I can’t move much because the blanket isn’t tightly secured but I am too anxious to sleep anyway. I try to piece together how my arrest had come about. I think of Anrich Burger.
I returned to South Africa in May 2012, having finished my five months’ sentence of house arrest in New Zealand, for my mother’s assisted suicide. It was around this time that Dr Anrich Burger first contacted me. Initially, it seemed that he simply wanted to show his support for DignitySA, and our organisation’s goal to change the law.
Anrich lived on a well-to-do country estate close to Paarl – a spacious complex with fields and streams, a gym, entertainment area, tennis courts and a pool. It was, and still is, a safe haven for the wealthy.
He and I immediately took a liking to each other and quickly formed the basis of what would become a deep friendship spanning the next two years. He was a gentle, kind, unassuming and highly intelligent man.
Anrich lived with Jill, whom he introduced to me as his fiancé. Prior to his accident, Jill had been a lodger in his flatlet in Somerset West. After the tragedy, she became his part-time carer before the two became romantically involved. Some of Anrich’s friends believed she was a gold-digging chancer, but Anrich certainly appeared to love her. On one visit, Anrich told me about the car accident that had caused his quadriplegia.
Eight years earlier, at the age of 34, he was on holiday with a friend in Botswana when their car veered off the road at relatively low speed and rolled onto its roof. The flipping of the vehicle turned Anrich onto his head, breaking two little bones in his neck. The accident destroyed life as he knew it. He lost the use of his arms and legs forever.
At the time, he was a young man with a promising life ahead of him, a brilliant medical doctor, training in acute and emergency medicine. He was strong and fit, with a passion for the outdoors and a love of water skiing, speed-boating and mountain biking. He had played rugby in Craven Week. His most endearing attribute was his kind nature and his ability to look for the good in everyone. Anrich was still trying to see hope and optimism, even from his own impossible position.
Whenever I was visiting, a full-time caregiver would regularly pop in to the room to hold a bottle of water for Anrich to drink from with a straw, or to wipe his nose when he had a cold, or to administer morphine drops for pain relief. He had lost all control and autonomy over his life.
As time went by, I visited more often. I would push him around the estate in his wheelchair while we had fascinating discussions, navigating a wide range of topics. Sometimes we would stop in the field and chat, and when we returned we would play chess.
We spoke almost daily on the phone. After a few months, our conversations began to conclude with him expressing his desire to die. The first time he mentioned this I was shocked – this didn’t match his cheerful, optimistic character.
Outwardly, he seemed so full of life, plans and hope, yet inwardly he carried an incredible frustration at being denied the rights that able-bodied people take for granted. He said that it wasn’t fair that while most could choose to commit suicide, it was illegal to help someone who was not able to do so themselves. He strongly believed that the law discriminated against quadriplegics.
He had carefully rationalised why he wanted to die. It wasn’t some impulsive or emotional decision. The defining factors were indignity, neuropathic pain and fear of the future.
Anrich would occasionally describe to me some of his most undignified days. These often occurred when he was being taken somewhere for a special outing, and on the journey he would lose control of his bowels. Jill or his caregiver would have to clean him up before the trip could continue. He found such episodes excruciatingly embarrassing and a humiliating loss of his dignity.
“No able-bodied person can comprehend the suffering of a quadriplegic, Sean, it’s impossible,” he said on one visit. “The layers of complexity are so many, it is very hard to know where to start. The easy things for people to relate to are toilet matters; most people can imagine the indignity and humiliation that comes with that.”
He continued. “My body is wracked with severe and uncontrollable pain. People who judge me harshly for wanting to die may say I should be able to live with the indignity, and just get on with it, but they can’t comprehend the pain. I can’t continue like this. The pain is insistent, nagging, and so sharp it stings. It makes me angry and mad because it never loses its freshness. If you were to stub your toe against a wall for instance, you just absorb the initial pain and then it fades. But with neuropathic pain, it’s just as sharp and intense every time, all the time, over and over. Sometimes it happens when I’m lying in bed and it’s like trying to fall asleep with someone sticking a needle into my joints. It’s like experiencing constant torture. There’s rarely a day I’m not in pain. It affects everything: my moods, my sleep. Some have it much worse than me, which I can’t bear to even imagine.”
“Is there anything you can take?” My question felt hollow, as if I already knew the answer.
“I’m a medical doctor, I know better than most quadriplegics what is available. I’ve tried everything, and nothing works. Whatever I try works for a bit, and then I have to take more and more to get the same relief. Then come all the side effects, and then it stops working. At present the only thing that gives me a little relief are the morphine drops. But they make my mind groggy, and I hate that. As time goes by, each of the complications I have will have a greater and more debilitating effect. The prospect of being a quadriplegic in my seventies or eighties is horrific.
“And there’s Jill too. She has suffered too much, and now she is losing it. Often she gets angry with me, even for things beyond my control, like losing control of my bowels when we go on an outing. This really hurts me, and it hurts me to see the burden I am to her. Also, she and my helper are often laughing and joking when they are lifting me and washing me. I know they are probably trying to lighten the moment, but this just adds to my suffering.”
I tried to offer him a semblance of comfort.
“You probably know the quote ‘While I breathe, I hope’. Don’t you hope that maybe there is a chance for a cure for spinal injuries?” I asked.
Anrich sighed deeply.
“I agree, hope is a wonderful thing, but I am a realist and currently there is no cure. If there were it would very quickly become common knowledge as it would be worth billions and billions of rands. I believe there will be a cure in the future, but not soon enough to benefit me. Someone has said that repairing the spinal cord is like reconstructing a crushed strawberry. I’ve read quite a bit on it.”
There was not much more I could offer in terms of wisdom and hope.
Anrich explained that in the unlikely event of all the stops being pulled out and unlimited resources becoming readily available, it would still take a few years to find a cure. At one stage some years ago, Anrich had been so certain that stem cell research could repair his spinal cord that he’d been funding a doctor friend to carry out private research.
This procedure involves the injection of stem cells taken from an embryo’s bone marrow into the damaged cervical spine with the aim of regenerating the spinal cord so the person can regain movement. His doctor friend’s research had not been successful, but still Anrich felt strongly that, given enough funding, a solution could be found.
“The bottom line is that as long as I am a quadriplegic, life is not acceptable to me and I see almost zero chance of being healed. In an
effort to encourage me, friends point out people like Christopher Reeve (Superman) and Stephen Hawking, when I know damn well most of them would rather die than wake up tomorrow in either one of their conditions.”
Anrich made many insightful observations in our conversations. He certainly opened my eyes to a world to which I had previously never given any thought.
* * * * *
One day in 2012 I arrived at Anrich’s home just as another friend was leaving. Their parting conversation went something like this:
“Just refuse to accept you have limitations, Anrich.”
“You’re right,” Anrich replied.
“Tell yourself you’re not disabled,” the friend brightly urged.
“Absolutely,” Anrich smiled.
“You can do everything you could do before; you just do it differently,” the friend kept on cheerleading.
“Thanks,” said Anrich. “You’re amazing! You’re an inspiration!” They said their goodbyes and the friend left.
“What rubbish,” Anrich muttered once his friend was out the door.
“Does he feel no shame saying such things, then going home to play with his children and make love to his wife?”
I could feel Anrich’s bitterness but was confused why he had been so amenable in the first place.
“Then why did you encourage him like that?” I asked.
“Because so many people in my position feel intense desperation and pain, but in order not to be alienated even further than they already are, we have to put on a show like you just witnessed.”
I was curious for him to explain.
“Think of it. One day you sustain a devastating injury that leaves you grievously disabled. You are terrified, confused and heartbroken, and the last thing you could possibly stand would be isolation from other human beings. But people desert those who are constantly negative, while on the other hand positive attitudes are attractive. So you simply elicit reinforcement from others as best you can, as you just witnessed. Most of us do it.”
“And they believe it?” I asked.
“Yes, and it reinforces a falsehood that quadriplegics are okay with their lot, that they can rise to the challenge and make the most of their lives. And this type of mindset is happening with quadriplegics all the time and causing a slowing down in the flow of resources into research on regenerating damaged spinal cords.”
Playing “the happy disabled game” made some kind of tragic sense.
Where the hope of a cure had once offered Anrich the only legitimate reason to keep on living, the harsh reality of living his severely compromised life had now taken over. Hope was no longer enough for him. The reason he had invited me to visit on this particular day was to outline his plan to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. He had alluded to this before, but today he expressed his total commitment to it and asked whether I would accompany him.
“And Jill, is she accepting your decision to go to Dignitas?” I asked after he had outlined his plan.
“She doesn’t want me to die, or to discuss my plan. I occasionally bring it up and she brushes it off and says I’m not thinking straight. It’s the same for anyone I have talked to about this, except you and my mother.”
“Unfortunately, it is human nature to think that suicide is irrational.” I was all too aware of how choosing to die was something most people simply couldn’t get their heads around, whether for moral, ethical or religious reasons.
“That is exactly the problem,” sighed Anrich. “They think I’m irrational. I have to somehow accomplish the seemingly impossible task of first convincing those around me that I am sound of mind. They would then have difficulty admitting that a person of sound mind could reasonably view their life as not only inferior, but so bitterly inferior that death is the only answer. It feels like they need something to be really wrong with me. Indeed, there is something wrong with me: I’m paralysed!”
Anrich was on a roll. I stayed silent and simply listened.
“The mental barrier is actually with my friends. Most of them have very strong psychological barriers that prevent them from being able to accept my decision to die. They all feel they need to convince me to live, but in doing so they deny me what I long for: validation and acceptance of my feelings. They say things like ‘I understand how you feel, but …’ while what I really need is ‘I understand how you feel and I’m going to see you through it and be there for you.’ I’m convinced that almost everyone would rather die than live as a quadriplegic.”
Who was I to argue with how Anrich felt? Although I related deeply to what he was explaining to me, I also tried to offer him another perspective.
“I suppose your friends feel compelled to try to convince you to live – condoning it feels as though they haven’t done enough to help you.” I suggested. “A lot of people perceive talk of suicide as a cry for help.”
Anrich was unconvinced.
“Yes, some people do say talking about suicide is a ‘cry for help’. In my case, it is a cry for help. I want help and support in facing this death, not help trying to prolong my suffering. I want those I love the most to help me by understanding me, and not just thinking I need psychological help. I am tired of being told what my feelings are or should be; I am tired of people telling me that I really want to live. ‘Help’ is abundantly available to me but only insofar as whatever I am given is in line with someone else’s agenda.”
The subject of Dignitas in Switzerland re-entered the conversation. “I don’t like it,” said Anrich, “but I like all the other choices even less.”
Planning to die
As I developed a deeper understanding of the suffering that comes with quadriplegia, I felt a profound empathy for Anrich. Although at that stage I had only known him a few months, I agreed to accompany him to Switzerland. I felt a duty as his friend to be there for him, and I wanted to make his journey as easy as possible. I was also keen to learn more about the operations of Dignitas in case it became possible to have a similar organisation in South Africa.
Switzerland is the only country in the world that accepts people who wish to end their lives from other countries, so this was the only option Anrich had to have a legal assisted death. Over the years, Dignitas has provided peace of mind to millions of people all over the world, not by helping them die, but by giving them the knowledge that if the need arises there is an assisted-suicide option available to them. Dignitas is also one of the few places that offer assisted suicides not only to people who suffer terminal illness but also other severe physical or mental conditions. A defining feature of an assisted death at Dignitas is that the person concerned must perform the last act to bring about their death. I’m still not sure how quadriplegics are able to do this but I know it is possible there.
Before leaving for Switzerland with Anrich, it was very important to me to visit his mother, Wilma, to get her blessing for both his decision and my involvement. When I met her in Port Elizabeth she was completely distraught about her son’s predicament. She could hardly speak through her tears as she described her love for her son. It was because of this love, and her ability to understand the need to end his torture, that she supported his plan to go to Switzerland. She did not, however, have the emotional strength to accompany him. During our conversation, Wilma also described how Anrich had attempted suicide in the first year after his accident. She said someone had helped him to take an overdose of medication, but when he was found unconscious he was rushed to hospital and resuscitated.
She read me an email Anrich had sent her. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it emphatically expressed his desire to die in order to end the torture he experienced every single day. He asked her not to feel sorry over his death, but to share the relief he would feel at ending his life. The message ended: “I want to die every day. I am in horrible pain every day.”
Wilma was choking with tears as she read the letter. She had probably read it hundreds of times. “Sean, there is only one thing worse than having a child die on you … and that’s for him to want to die,” she sobbed. “I know I should be at Anrich’s side when he dies, but he understands I can’t do it … It will destroy me. He doesn’t hold it against me, and he knows I will be there in spirit.”
“When he dies, Wilma, I will be comforting him with your words. You will be there,” I said.
We said our goodbyes, but I knew we would be forever bonded in our love for Anrich, and the shared painful connection of understanding and blessing his desire to die.
* * * * *
As time went by, the logistics for the trip to Dignitas became too much for Anrich. Dignitas required three separate medical and psychological reports, all of which had to be valid within a three-month window. At one point he asked whether I could write a medical report stating that he was of sound mind. He said, even though I was not a medical doctor, he hoped Dignitas would accept it. He said it was very hard to get one from a psychiatrist because when he told them why he wanted it they simply suggested that he must be depressed. Such an assessment would disqualify him from Dignitas, which infuriated him because he felt his decision was rational, and had nothing to do with depression.
The costs were mounting. On top of R200 000 “dying” fee required by Dignitas, he had to travel Business Class to accommodate all a quadriplegic needed to be comfortable. He also began to feel that dying in another country was a little sad. He was South African to the core, and began to increasingly feel that he wanted to die in the country he loved. This is often the case for people who have never been to Europe. Switzerland feels very foreign and alienating, and the prospect of going there to die makes them anxious.
As Anrich began to let go of the Switzerland plan, he made a firm decision that he wanted to die in his own country. He believed that this was also a simple right everyone should be entitled to. And so he began carefully planning for a peaceful death at home.
When he asked me once again to be part of his plan, this time in South Africa, it completely caught me off guard. While I was quite comfortable with the idea of escorting him to Dignitas in Switzerland, with the heartfelt blessings of his devastated mother, helping him to die at home would have huge implications. First and foremost, I would be breaking the law. Unlike when I helped my own mother die, this time I would really be crossing a line.
I tried to see things from Anrich’s perspective. He wasn’t changing his plan because of financial issues (which were not a serious impediment), or the logistics of the paperwork in keeping his ‘Green Light’ to Dignitas valid. He was changing his mind for the most reasonable of reasons – he simply wanted to have an uncomplicated death in the country he loved.
After much thought and many discussions, I agreed to his request. Despite concerns for my own safety, my overriding instinct was that I simply couldn’t bear to see him continue to suffer.
Sometimes, the most innocuous-looking decisions have the greatest consequences.
Anrich was emphatic that Jill not know what he was planning. In truth, I wasn’t comfortable about that at all but I reassured myself in the knowledge that Jill had been completely aware of his determination to die for some months already. Anrich had recently given an interview to the largely circulated YOU magazine in which he described his desperation to end his life, and that he was planning to die at Dignitas in Switzerland later in the year. The article also reported that I was going to accompany him there – everything was in the open. There were no secrets.
Anrich and I spent many days discussing how we could carry out his plan. He always made sure that Jill wasn’t around. He often told me he was almost content knowing he had an exit strategy in place, and that he was even sleeping peacefully for the first time in years. He told me his greatest fear was that something would happen to me and his conduit for escape from his suffering would be gone. After each time I visited, he would always phone me to check that I had got home safely.
Finally, Anrich’s detailed plan for ending his life was in place. Every few weeks he would phone me to tell me he was going to “do it” the coming weekend, politely checking that I would be available. Each time he contacted me, I always reassured him that I was ready. I didn’t want my availability to be a factor in his momentous decision. And every time I would attempt to mentally prepare myself for what was coming. I went on many mountain walks in the days leading up to “D-Day” as he referred to it. In the nights leading up to the “day”, I would toss and turn.
I never once doubted Anrich’s desire to die, nor that he needed someone to be with him, but my anxiety around my involvement intensified. No matter how much I believed his desire to die was justified, I was struggling to deal with the notion of being an accomplice. Yet I didn’t want him to have to suffer alone just because of my own cowardice.
Time after time, Anrich would cancel, either the day before, or even on the day itself. This went on for months. He always had a very logical reason for the postponement, never because he was uncertain of his decision. It was usually related to some aspect of his plan; for instance, who would be the caregiver that day, or where Jill would be. (He was determined that she didn’t uncover his plan as she would try to stop him.) I always showed complete understanding and support for all his decisions.
I initially felt some relief whenever he postponed, only for this pattern to start again a few weeks later. But the more often it happened, the more it affected my peace of mind. I wasn’t sleeping well and was anxious during the day, not knowing when he would next call. During this time Raine was pregnant with our third child. I needed to focus on her wellbeing.
Raine was obviously picking up on my anxiety and became very concerned. She watched me suffering each time Anrich restarted the clock for his exit plan. After the eighth time of him postponing, she insisted I say something to him.
“You’ve got to speak to him … This stress can’t be good for you. I can see what it’s doing to you – you’re not the same person.”
I knew she was right but her pointing this out made me feel very uneasy.
“It’s not that simple. If I talk to him, it’s almost like I’m hurrying him up. This is not about me,” I tried to explain. “The decision to commit suicide, and the planning around it, are the most difficult ones a person can face.”
“What if I talk to him?” she suggested. “Coming from me, it’s just a wife’s concern. He knows I’m pregnant. I’ll tell him I also feel the stress. He’s a doctor and he will know the risks are also to our child.”
I did not like the idea. I did not want to put any pressure on Anrich, but at the same time I was causing a lot of stress for me and my wife.
“Let me think about it,” I said. “I know Anrich appreciates how wonderfully supportive you are of his decision, and mine in agreeing to help him. He often tells me what a wonderful wife I have.”
Eventually, I did approach him. I told Anrich to tell me on the day that he wanted to die. I said this on-again-off-again pattern was causing me tremendous stress. He seemed to understand. I felt cruel but after so many false starts, to try to preserve my sanity, I had to. I said I would always be available on the day.
A merciful death
Eight months after the first call, the day arrived. We checked into a luxury suite at the Radisson Hotel at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Anrich chose a ground-floor room with a beautiful, tranquil view of the harbour.
In the last hour of his life I saw him experience complete peace for the first time. He expressed his joy at being able to leave his world of pain and humiliation. He spoke of his love for his mother and Jill, and how he wanted them to also feel his freedom. We made a brief video for them.
Before making the video, he spoke solemnly to me. “Sean, if you ever doubt what you are doing today, you only need to tell yourself that if you weren’t here, I would keep trying to find a way to do it myself.”
His words were profound to me.
“I don’t doubt my part in this, Anrich. However, I do doubt your ability to be able to end your own life,” I replied.
Anrich had brought along a packet containing 100 phenobarbital tablets that he had obtained from a pharmacy using a prescription he’d written for himself. Phenobarbital is a medication recommended for the treatment of epilepsy, and can easily be prescribed by a doctor in South Africa. It is also used routinely by vets to euthanise animals.
My role was merely to do for him what he could not do himself. I was his functioning arms and legs, nothing more. I crushed the tablets and mixed them with water in his drinking bottle. Then I placed the bottle on his wheelchair where it usually sat.
Before he drank from the bottle, he murmured his favourite quote: “I will renounce the most humiliating form of slavery – to be a living head tied to a dead body.”
These were the same words spoken on video by Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic, before he drank a lethal mixture. He was the man who was the subject of the movie The Sea Inside.
When he was ready, I held the bottle so Anrich could take his final drink through a straw. As he gazed out at the sea he had once been able to enjoy so much, he slowly drifted into a peaceful sleep, never to wake. Although Anrich died that day, his joy for life had ended eight years earlier when two small bones in his neck broke.
After a while, I phoned hotel reception to advise them that there had been a death in the room because I didn’t want the staff to be traumatised. Then I walked slowly to the car park. I felt completely disorientated, as if in a dream. I was walking, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere. My mind was reliving what had just happened, and I also felt the intense relief of Anrich’s release. Several times I found myself turning my head and looking out to the sea, as if Anrich was out there somewhere. It was a surreal experience.
Anrich’s caregiver was waiting in the hotel car park, and brought me back to my senses. As arranged, I gave him the video of Anrich saying his farewell words to Jill and his mother. The caregiver had been previously instructed by Anrich to take the video straight to Jill so that she would be the first to know what had happened.
That evening I went for a hike up Table Mountain to clear my mind. I took the path straight up from behind Rhodes Memorial to the King’s Blockhouse. I pushed myself hard, trying to purge all thoughts from my mind. Although the sun was setting, once at the Blockhouse I carried on up the steep path to the beacon on Minor Peak. I continued driving myself harder; I wanted physical pain to replace the emotional pain that had been engulfing me all day.
Nearer the peak, the hike involved climbing tricky rock faces. I knew there would be dangers descending in the dark but I wanted to be on the edge. Having come so close with death, I needed to feel the resonance of life.
The physical danger and exertion helped clear my mind. Once I got to the top I sat on a rock and soaked up the magnificent view across the Cape Flats, the Indian Ocean on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It was twilight. There was a glorious glow over the horizon. My mind quietened as I reflected on the day. I had done the right thing, of that I had no doubt.
I felt the deep ache of having lost a dear friend, one of the kindest, most gentle and beautiful souls I had ever encountered. Like others around him, I had been reluctant to let him go, to lose him as a friend. As I sat on the mountain, I knew that I had to turn my sorrow into celebration – Anrich had cheated the torturous life he was forced to endure, escaping by means of a dignified death.
I was still greatly troubled by the fact that Anrich Burger died alone though. I had been part of his life for almost two years, but outside of me he had a close circle of loved ones and friends. He wanted them all there. He wanted to be comforted as he died, with someone holding his hand, touching his face, and the soft voice of a loved one whispering in his ear. He desperately wanted Jill to be there, but he knew that that was impossible.
I didn’t sleep that night. Anrich was gone.
The bail hearing
Wednesday, 19 September 2018: Despite having been told that my bail hearing would take place between 8 and 9am, the two detectives don’t arrive until 10. By this time I have been given a bowl of traditional mealie pap for breakfast. The officers handcuff me and bundle me into the back of a police vehicle. As we approach the court building I can see photographers surrounding the entrance – how did they know? I feel humiliated. An opportunity to grab a photo of Professor Davison, bedraggled after a night in a police cell, unshaven, no shoelaces, holding up his belt-less pants, handcuffed, being led into the court holding cells …
Once past the media circus I am taken to a cell that appears to be under the court. A man approaches me to tell me that my lawyer is with the prosecutor, arguing terms for my bail release.
This cell is as dingy as last night’s. Both have leaky taps, as do all the other cells I can see surrounding me. It is 2018, the year of an intense and brutal drought in Cape Town. So much for the water crisis.
I pace for about half an hour before my lawyer appears at the cell gate.
“Good news,” he beams. “I’ve convinced the prosecution not to oppose bail, even though the charge is premeditated murder.”
Under the circumstances, this is indeed good news. He also says that one of my supporters, Neville Schonegevel, came forward and offered to post my bail as soon as he heard of my arrest. Neville and his wife Patsy are more than supporters, they are very good friends, and even flew halfway across the world to attend my wedding in China. It is deeply comforting to know they are with me.
My lawyer then works through the bail conditions demanded by the prosecutor. They appear to be pretty straightforward: handing over my passports, not going within 500 metres of an international airport, signing in at the Pinelands police station on Wednesdays and residing every night at my house in Pinelands. He also gives me a list of state witnesses I am not to contact; these are people who the state intends to call to testify against me in my trial.
“The judge still has to agree to grant you bail – it’s his decision,” my lawyer says as he turns and heads back in the direction of the court. “By the way, the prosecutor said there will be only the one premeditated murder charge today and additional similar charges will be added later.” With that bombshell dropped, he disappears up the stairs.
Similar charges. I feel numb. Frozen with fear.
Alone in my cell, I study the state’s witness list; there are about 15 names. I immediately recognise people associated with Richard Holland, another man in whose suicide I had assisted. How did they find out about this?
Just as shocking is to see Anrich Burger’s girlfriend’s name at the top of the witness list. Why is Jill still pushing this? It’s been five years. Surely, with time, she had come to understand Anrich’s desperation to die? Later I will learn that she may have been romantically involved with Anrich’s carpenter at the time of his death, and would end up marrying and having children with him.
My mind is in a panicked mess as the guard arrives to escort me, in handcuffs, to the court.
I am led up the stairs and directly into the dock in the middle of the courtroom. Dazed by the bright light and daunted by the intimidating setting of the courtroom, I don’t look around to see who is in the public gallery behind me. My thoughts are still reeling at the names on the witness list. In front of me are all the court officials and along the side, lining the room, are reporters with notepads at the ready.
I don’t take in much of what is being said. The woman prosecutor reads out the charge related to Dr Burger’s death, and says something about other charges that will follow later.
My lawyer stands and reads a lengthy document supporting my request for bail. After this, the stern-sounding judge states my bail conditions. Towards the end, he addresses me directly: “Do you understand these?”
I nod slowly. He repeats his question, trying to get a verbal response from me, and again I nod more vigorously; I just can’t get the words out to say “Yes” and “Thank you”.
He asks a third time before giving up. He must realise that I am in shock.
As I walk out of the dock I turn to the public gallery behind me to see Richie Davis frantically waving. Richie and his wife Helen are two of my oldest friends in South Africa. I don’t recall when I last felt such joy to see a friendly face.
From the holding cells below the court, my lawyer guides me out of the building and through the mass of photographers and reporters gathered outside the court as we head to his office. I immediately ask if we can drive, because I simply can’t face them. It is too late. The story is all over the world – even the Sunday Star-Times in New Zealand dedicates a front page to my bail hearing.
Reality sinks in
Once I get to my flatlet, it’s a huge relief to discover that the police have not, in fact, been back to search it. I immediately find the bottle of Nembutal and bury it in the garden.
But I still can’t shake the sense of panic, because I know that the police could return at any moment if they discover my deception of not telling them I’m staying in the flatlet, and that the computers and devices they have seized do not belong to me. I could be rearrested for lying to the police, concealing evidence, who knows what else? If they cancel my bail I could be in jail for months until my trial, and then who knows, years after that.
I sit down and take a deep breath. I have to keep calm. I need to clear my mind of the enormity of my situation. I have to focus on the positives, the main one being that I am not in jail, and that means I have an opportunity to minimise further damage. The next moments could be the most crucial of my life; every minute could be my last taste of freedom.
There are things I have to do while I am still free: I have to get word out to people the police may be interested in talking to, and I have to get rid of any evidence that could implicate me further. I can’t take any chances; the stakes are so very high.
Since the police haven’t seized my laptop from the flatlet, I now have the opportunity to make sure they never do. There is information on it that the police can definitely use against me, so I have to get rid of it fast. Although I don’t know what exactly police experts could recover from a computer I’ve heard that almost anything that’s been on a computer can be recovered. I am not about to take any chances, so I totally destroy it. I take a crowbar from my car boot, wrench the laptop open, remove the drive and pummel it into a tangled mess. I am like a possessed madman. Inside I feel very calm and rational. I know what I am doing.
When I finish with the hard drive I drop the remains in a bucket of corrosive acid, generally used to unblock drains. This has to be done, there is no question about it. I then do the same with various back-up memory drives and sticks. I wrap all the remains tightly in a rubbish bag. I plan to deposit the mangled “evidence” in a public bin at a petrol station later.
Next on my to-do list is to phone my family in Australia. Richie has left me his spare phone. At least this phone is clean – there can be no police taps on it, so I can speak freely. When Raine picks up, I try not to sound too frightened as I put her in the picture – not a pretty one. We are both confused, depressed and exhausted. She also hasn’t had much sleep, since she was about to go to bed in Australia when I was arrested. Raine has also been contemplating the probability of me going to jail. It seems so likely. Premeditated murder carries a minimum life sentence; there just doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid that outcome.
After hanging up, there is no time to lose. I grab the bag of mangled computer remains and drive to a petrol station in a neighbouring suburb. While my car is being filled I surreptitiously deposit the bag in the garage bin, while at the same time carefully studying the other vehicles to make sure I haven’t been followed by a detective.
I’ve been down this road before. When I went on trial in New Zealand for my mother’s death, I learned that I had been under 24-hour surveillance for a few days after my release on bail, and that the detective who followed me had recovered a bag I had thrown in a public rubbish bin. I discovered this because the Crown had to hand all its evidence over to my lawyer. Included in that evidence was a video of two detectives in a police lab, gloved hands, carefully analysing my bag of rubbish. They slowly unpacked the trash, photographing and studying each scrap of paper. On that occasion they found useful material that was used against me in my trial. I won’t fall for that mistake again.
* * * * *
As reality kicks in, I feel not only the shock of imagining what life will be like in prison, but also the absolute inability to comprehend being separated from my young children. Even a year or two behind bars is a terrifying prospect. But what if the judge hands down 10 years, 20 years, or more? In all probability, I will be facing a life sentence. It’s just too horrific to contemplate.
“Have you thought of skipping the country, and going to New Zealand?” My friend Richie asks the question that keeps lurking in the back of my mind. He has always struck me as a very conservative, law-abiding man. To hear this from him makes me think it has to be seriously considered.
I haven’t yet had time to fully apply my mind to this option. The cost of skipping the country will be huge, not only in terms of the loss of all our finances and the property, but also starting from scratch in a country where I, a known fugitive hiding from justice, may struggle to get a job. Not to mention the risk of an extradition treaty being established between South Africa and New Zealand and getting deported back to South Africa to stand trial. Then there is the even greater fear of getting caught while trying to skip the country – that would lead to immediate imprisonment for a very long time. The thought sends shivers down my spine.
On the other hand, skipping the country might be worth the risk if it means being able to stay with my children. This is a hugely tempting thought. I am usually such a rational and sensible person, but on this night my emotions are running all over the place. I am simply not capable of thinking straight.
My mother and Bobby Sands
I spend much of the day reflecting on how my present nightmare came about. My thoughts keep going back to my mum, because what unfolded yesterday really began the night she died. My mother, Patricia, was such an extraordinary woman that perhaps it is not surprising that she had a somewhat extraordinary death with far-reaching consequences.
My mother was a medical doctor, and she knew better than most the ghastly death that would await her from the cancer. She wanted to meet death on her own terms and so decided to go on a hunger strike in order to take some control over the end of her life. In her doctor’s characteristic hardly legible handwriting, she scrawled a Living Will asking her children to respect her request.
LIVING WILL Sept 2006
To whom it may concern:
And to my children: Fergus Davison, Mary Davison, Jo Ewer, Sean Davison.
I am ill with progressive cancer that can only get worse. My quality of life can only deteriorate. I do not wish to have a protracted disagreeable death, and I think I can count on all of you in supporting me in this. I have decided to die by inanition (unless alternative means occur), and would like to make the following request:
No resuscitation (or ECT),
No attempts to make me eat.
I wish to be the one to decide when I stop fluids.
I would prefer as few people to know about this as possible.
(It is what I call a “Bobby Sands”.)
I would like to thank everyone for their help up till now. Sean, what would I have done without you!
I never questioned her decision because not only did I respect her medical wisdom, but she was my mum and I had respected her decisions all my life, so there was no need to question them at the end of hers.
My mother’s logic was quite simple: if you stop eating there is only one possible outcome – you die. She felt that this was a better option than a long, lingering death brought on by the cancer. She was half Irish and so she aptly called her wish “doing a Bobby Sands” in reference to the Irish Republican Army hunger striker.
Bobby Sands was the IRA leader held in the Maze prison outside Belfast, who starved himself to death in 1981. At the time, the IRA was fighting the English “occupation” of Northern Ireland, and Bobby’s death was a watershed in Northern Ireland’s troubles, helping pave the way for the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, to become the largest political party on the island of Ireland. Apart from Bobby Sands, my mother also talked about other people who had survived without food for extended periods, and how long they had livid, such as the Jews in Nazi concentration camps, people shipwrecked on desert islands, and drifting on the sea in lifeboats. When it became clear, from these conversations, that people could survive for quite a long time on almost nothing, she would end the discussion exasperated: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
She had embarked on a hunger strike and the last thing she wanted to hear was that it could last for longer than she had expected.
Bobby Sands was, however, her reference point. One day my mother asked me to look up on the internet to see how many days Bobby Sands had survived. I was surprised she didn’t know this already, but then again, at her age, she had never done a Google search, or even used a computer for that matter.
I looked it up and told her he had lived for 65 days without food. I added that he was a fit young man of 27 and she was a frail elderly lady of 85 with cancer and couldn’t expect to live for more than a fraction of that time. Even though I constantly assured her that her end was very near, she was never convinced because she said she felt too healthy, and couldn’t understand why she never felt hungry.
When she embarked on the hunger strike we both thought she would die quickly because she had hardly eaten in the weeks leading up to the start of it. But instead, the days went by, then the weeks. At one point, she said she had probably outlived shipwrecked survivors in a life raft, and was rapidly catching up on Bobby Sands. She had a quirky sense of humour and made light of it, and ruefully suggested that she was immortal.
This state of suspension went on for five weeks. By this stage, drinking only a cup of water each day for comfort, she was unable to move a limb. Her flesh was breaking down to keep her vital organs functioning, and she was certainly incapable of ending her life by any other means. At this point she realised she was having the ghastly death that she had gone on a hunger strike to specifically avoid; she also realised that this state could go on for many more days, or even weeks, and so she made her fateful request – she asked me to help her to die.
Initially, this was a very difficult request to deal with. Ironically, I was entirely focused on keeping her alive, and making each day as comfortable as possible. I couldn’t get my head around the notion of ending my mother’s life, but after much soul searching, I realised that it wasn’t my decision to make. It was what my mother wanted. Who was I to play God and insist that my mum continue rotting in her bed until she eventually died? So, following her instructions, I crushed up the morphine tablets she had been hoarding from her prescription, mixed them in a cup of water, and gave her the lethal drink. For both of us, this was a moment to celebrate – she could finally escape the dreadful death she had been suffering through.
In 2010, four years after my mother died, I was arrested for her murder, and eventually convicted of her assisted suicide in the New Zealand High Court. After a highly publicised trial, I eventually received five months’ house arrest in New Zealand. (Strictly speaking it wasn’t really “house arrest” because I wasn’t in my home, my home was in South Africa with my family.)
I have no regrets about what happened. If I had not helped my mum and had left her to suffer until the bitter end, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.
My mother opened my eyes to a world I had no previous awareness of. She opened my eyes to how painful and undignified the dying process can be, and opened my heart to the world of people whose lives are so terrible that they prefer death over life. Ultimately, her death led me to the situation I am in today. If I had not had this experience with my mother, if instead I had received a phone call in South Africa to say my mother had died peacefully in her sleep, as I had with my father 10 years earlier, I would have been denied this most precious knowledge and wisdom.
Now, more than ever, I must hold on to my mother’s memory, her strength and courage. I must keep telling myself that I have done nothing morally wrong related to the charge I now face.
* * * * *
In 2021, New Zealand does change the law to allow for assisted dying for the terminally ill. Since my mother fitted the criteria of who would qualify for such a death, I apply to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to be pardoned. Her government is, however, unable to do this and refers my request to the Queen’s representative in New Zealand for a Royal Pardon. I am still waiting to hear the outcome.
►The Price of Mercy, by Sean Davison, is published by Melinda Ferguson Books. The ebook will be available for purchase at Amazon.com.
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