South African Secularist of the Year 2020

Dr Suzanne Walter South African Secularist of the Year

The ethics of physician-assisted dying (PAD) or physician-assisted suicide has been debated extensively worldwide. There are two common underpinnings for the practice, including patient autonomy and relief from suffering. The third argument for physician-assisted suicide is based on safe medical practices that require the expertise of healthcare professionals. The South African legal system does not support PAD. Furthermore, the laws denying those suffering from terminal, painful, and debilitating illness their final dignity at their end of days are based on the Christian ethos and ethics.

Dr. Walter has been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. She knows she can expect a painful, drawn-out death and would prefer the right to choose a peaceful and dignified death when she reaches the point where her suffering becomes unbearable. She has petitioned the High Court of South Africa to decriminalize PAD to this effect. Decriminalizing PAD would allow an inclined doctor to assist her and others in their pursuit of a dignified death when faced with such dire circumstances, without the fear of facing charges or their registration being revoked by the Health Professionals Council of South Africa.

An argument has been put forward in support of Dr. Walter’s position. The laws are founded in Christian ethics, which deny her and many others autonomy and dignity in their suffering. These Christian-based laws exemplify the SA government foisting Christian ethics on non-Christians. If this imposition is accurate, then it clearly aligns with SASS’s interests in the separation of religious influence on government activities.

Humanists International aligns with the reasoning and logic of Dr. Walter where their ethics “supports a change of the law with suitable safeguards to allow a competent person, who is incurably ill and suffering, to ask a willing doctor to assist them to die quickly and peacefully.” These Humanist ethics are ascribed to by a significant portion of SASS’s membership.

SASS has recognized Dr. Walter’s efforts, in the court of law, to fight for a competent patient’s [body] autonomy and relief from suffering when faced with an incurable illness at the end of days. This legal stance will also ensure safe medical practices that require healthcare professionals. She has also been acknowledged for starting a fund so her work can continue if it outlived her. For her pertinent and momentous efforts, Dr. Walter has been conferred the SASS Secularist of the Year, 2020.