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Herald on Sunday editorial: Suicide case a challenge to us all

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Sean Davison. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Sean Davison. Photo / Otago Daily Times

The result in the case of Sean Davison may have satisfied the demands of the law but it came nowhere near serving the needs of justice.

Davison, 50, who helped his terminally ill mother to die in 2006, was sentenced on Thursday to five months' home detention. The sentence will be served in Dunedin, half a world away from his partner Raine Pan and their two young sons, who live in South Africa, where Davison is a micro-biologist.

Several elements enforce the conclusion that this case was more about ensuring the law was enforced than righting a wrong or punishing a criminal. First, Davison easily had the charge of attempted murder reduced to a charge of inciting and procuring suicide - and made even milder by the replacement of the word "inciting" with "counselling". Second, even his prosecutors accepted that he had acted out of love and compassion and not for any personal gain and that his 85-year-old mother had both asked to die and had asked others to assist her.

The sentencing judge said the court had to impose a sentence that "denounced [Davison's] actions and provided a deterrent to others", which is quite proper under law. But anyone would need a black-and-white sense of right and wrong, not to mention a very hard heart, to denounce what Davison did.

If nothing else, the case should alert our lawmakers to the need to address the issue in the next parliamentary term. Both major parties have promised to support any euthanasia bill as far as a select committee, where MPs could hear public submissions for and against a law change. That would be the basis for a worthwhile public debate on the matter.

Attitudes have shifted a long way in the past generation and in a secular society the discussion on the right of the terminally ill to end their own lives has progressed beyond religion into areas of ethics, liberty and human rights.

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and several American states, have legalised physician-assisted suicide; politicians in two Australian states are pushing for it. New Zealand needs to join in the discussion.

We have led the world in matters of social policy in the past and we can do so here; it is well past time that we confronted this challenge.

- Herald on Sunday

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