Secular Society

South African Secularist of the Year 2022

Professor Sean Davison named South African Secularist of the Year

Please join us in celebrating the recipient of our prestigious Secularist of the Year award for 2022 — Professor Sean Davison. We consider it a true privilege to have the opportunity to recognise him as an exceptional individual. With his unwavering commitment to secular values and his tireless efforts in championing a more inclusive and rational society, Professor Davison embodies the very essence of our organisation’s mission. His remarkable and tireless contributions have had a positive impact within our community and beyond.

Sean Davison founded the organisation DignitySA in 2011, following his being charged with the murder of his terminally ill mother in New Zealand. DignitySA seeks a law change in South Africa, to allow those suffering unbearably and with no hope of recovery, to have the option of an assisted death. DignitySA successfully took the assisted suicide application of Robin Stransham-Ford to the High Court, only to have the decision challenged by the government and overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal.

As a public figure supporting euthanasia in South Africa, Sean’s assistance was sought in finding a peaceful ending to the life of three men experiencing catastrophic disability and suffering. Each of these individuals had made a rational decision for euthanasia, but none was physically able to carry out such a plan, and there was no medically approved process in place to enable this. Sean assisted these men to end their lives at a time when there were strong political forces in South Africa opposing euthanasia. Following police investigations, he was arrested and charged with three counts of murder.

In 2019, Sean was convicted of murder in the high court and received a three-year house arrest sentence in Cape Town, during which time he was banned from speaking to the media. He was also sentenced to 576 hours community service, which he spent cleaning prison toilets.

On 20 June 2022, the day Sean’s sentence finished and the media ban was lifted, he immediately declared that he was even more determined to continue the fight for a law change on assisted dying. He said that he wants to live in a country that has a compassionate law that does not confuse euthanasia with murder.

In spite of the hardship he has experienced, and government obstruction at attempts to change the law, Sean continues to lead DignitySA and fight for the right to die with dignity. DignitySA is currently taking the assisted suicide request of Haarck Dieter, a man with motor neuron disease, to the high court and ultimately to the Constitutional Court.

The media attention that has followed Sean led to him becoming the face of the right-to-die movement in South Africa. For the past 12 years he has frequently been in the news, never shying away from presenting the humane case for a law change. The media publicity that followed Sean undoubtedly contributed to a change in the mindset of the public in South Africa, where opinion polls have shown overwhelming support for assisted dying legislation.

In public addresses Sean has repeatedly stated his opinion that religion is at the core of the resistance to a law change, and has asked why an individual’s right to have a dignified death is largely being determined by faith systems that not everyone subscribes to.

His stated view is that assisted dying is not a religious issue but is about compassion, kindness, and human rights.