7th October, 2016
Desmond Tutu has said he would like the option of ending his life through assisted dying as he called on politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders to take action on the issue.
In an article published on his 85th birthday on Friday, and following several spells in hospital this year for recurring infections, the emeritus archbishop of Cape Town and anti-apartheid activist reiterated his support for assisted dying, first disclosed in the Guardian in 2014.
“With my life closer to its end than its beginning, I wish to help give people dignity in dying,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
“Just as I have argued firmly for compassion and fairness in life, I believe that terminally ill people should be treated with the same compassion and fairness when it comes to their deaths,” he added.
“Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death.”
Tutu had changed his mind over assisted suicide two years ago after a lifelong opposition but had remained ambiguous about whether he personally would choose such a death.
He said: “Today, I myself am even closer to the departures hall than arrivals, so to speak, and my thoughts turn to how I would like to be treated when the time comes. Now more than ever, I feel compelled to lend my voice to this cause.”
He believed in the sanctity of life but also that terminally ill people should not be forced to endure terrible pain and suffering, he wrote. Instead they should have control over the manner and timing of their death.
He added: “I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.”
Tutu pointed to laws in California and Canada that permit assisted dying for terminally ill people. But “there are still many thousands of dying people across the world who are denied their right to die with dignity”.
He said: “For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort.”
He concluded: “In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values. I pray that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth. The time to act is now.”
Tutu, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1984, has been admitted to hospital several times, most recently in September, for recurring infections as a result of surgery for prostate cancer.
Assisted dying is legal in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Albania, Colombia and Japan as well as Canada. Several US states have enacted measures on assisted dying, including Washington, California, Oregon, Vermont and New Mexico.
In September last year, the UK parliament rejected a bill to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill, with 330 MPs voting against it and 118 backing the measure, despite an opinion poll showing it was supported by 82% of the public. The same poll suggested that 44% of people would break the law to help a loved one to die, risking a jail sentence of up to 14 years.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who sits in the House of Lords, urged MPs to reject the bill along with other faith leaders.
Former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has argued for assisted dying to be lawful, saying such a move would be “profoundly Christian and moral”. Tutu wrote: “His initiative has my blessing and support – as do similar initiatives in my home country, South Africa, throughout the United States and across the globe.”
Tutu has also been a vocal advocate for women’s rights, a staunch opponent of homophobia, a campaigner on poverty, for people with HIV/Aids and on climate change. He headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela described him as the “voice of the voiceless”.