Article in the Sunday Age:
A son's act of mercy divides a family
By Peter Munro
January 15, 2012
Sean Davison in court.
THE blue mortar and pestle had gathered dust on his mother's Welsh dresser, before he used it to crush a dozen morphine pills in her kitchen. The powdered drugs dyed the water murky brown in the glass he held to her lips. She smiled gently after drinking, holding his hand.
''You are a wonderful son,'' she said. But Sean Davison's decision to help his mother die exposed a fault-line that has since torn at his family - and sparked claims his own sister in Melbourne betrayed him to police.
Late last November, New Zealand's High Court sentenced Davison, whom the judge described as an ''exceptionally devoted and loving son'', to five months' home detention for ''counselling and procuring'' his mother's suicide. He spoke to The Sunday Age last week from his three-bedroom confines, about the death that has come to define his life.
Sean Davison and mother Patricia at her home near Dunedin.
''I've had enough, this is not life,'' his mother, Patricia, 85, had said repeatedly from her sickbed. Cancer had spread to her lungs, liver and brain. She half-joked for someone to throw her into Otago Harbour, which she could see from her home near Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island.
Davison, who lives in South Africa, had come home to nurse her. Patricia - a former GP and psychiatrist who loved painting, dancing and cathedral music - was desperate to die, he says, but feared a failed overdose might leave her alive and brain damaged. She started a hunger strike, hoping to hasten her demise but was still alive 33 days later, on October 25, 2006. Her body was rotting, she could no longer hold a glass of water to take the morphine she had instructed her youngest child to stockpile.
''I always kept trying to keep her alive … I was her caregiver. I would read to her and put CDs on to make her life as enjoyable as possible. It was only after some agonising that I conceded I had no choice,'' says Davison, 50, his soft voice shuddering on Skype. ''I had doubts all the way leading up to that moment … If she had told me at that last minute, 'No, don't do it,' I would have been relieved.''
Plea for help: Patricia Davison
He is lean with wispy hair and a square jaw. His home and own family - his partner Raine Pan and their boys, Flynn, 3, and Finnian, 18 months - are far away in Cape Town. Davison, head of the forensic DNA laboratory at the University of West Cape, was ordered to serve detention in a friend's house in Dunedin. ''I don't regret what I did, I regret being in a situation where I had to do what I did,'' he says.
''Once I told her I was going to help her, she was so relieved. I helped her to drink, then we waited and talked and I held her hand, and we chatted about family things … I felt great relief when she died. I was happy. I hugged her. It was only the next morning I started to think about the ramifications of what I had done.''
Davison's memoir of that time, Before We Say Goodbye, published in June 2009, omitted his role in the death on the request of his publisher's lawyers. But by then an earlier draft, which detailed his mother's overdose, had been given to police. The incriminating manuscript was separately sent to a New Zealand newspaper anonymously in late June.
As in Australia, euthanasia is illegal in New Zealand - despite two parliamentary attempts to pass ''death with dignity'' laws. Davison was visiting friends in Dunedin in September 2010 when he was arrested and charged, initially with attempted murder. He recalls the moment an officer placed the damning manuscript in front of him - it was then he saw it was the same copy he had given his older sister, Mary, a gerontologist and consultant in cognitive dementia at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
''I felt shock,'' he says now. ''My instant reaction was the police had taken it from her when they interviewed her. Subsequently I learnt she wasn't interviewed … and then it became very obvious.'' Mary had twice taken legal action to stop publication, arguing Davison's book was libellous and breached her family's privacy (some of her identifying details were removed subsequently).
Davison had sent about a dozen manuscripts to family and friends. But on the front of Mary's copy he specially glued a photograph of their mother's self-portrait, to encourage his sister's sympathy. What he believes to be that same portrait stared at him in the police station. ''I try to see the best side of her, that her sole goal was to try to stop publication and maybe she went too far and she wasn't intending it to end up like this,'' he says now. ''I don't seek revenge if it was her … I am hoping she regrets doing it and regrets what's happened to me.''
Mary Davison, though, strongly rejects the allegation. ''I deny it. I don't have a motive for it either. He is entitled to believe that. It didn't come through me … I wouldn't do it. I love my brother,'' she tells The Sunday Age in Melbourne. She declines to comment further, except to say her mother was a very private person and that she cannot explain why the police had the self-portrait copy. ''I didn't write the book, I didn't hand the article to the police and I wasn't there when my mother died.''
Neither Sean nor his other two siblings have questioned Mary directly about the manuscript. ''I think she couldn't see beyond the fact that this [issue] was bigger than our family,'' says sister Jo Bennett, 51, a high school English teacher in Christchurch. ''I think in most cases it doesn't split families. I don't think Mary's anger had anything to do with Sean euthanising Mum.''
She praises Sean for his ''bravery''. ''He was closest to her. I think he probably felt he was the one who couldn't refuse her,'' she says. ''My mother asked me, she asked all of us. She said: 'Please, please, please, if you care about me please end it for me.' I felt very brutal in my reply. I said: 'Mum, it's a murder rap and I have children to look after.' I was choosing my life as a mother over hers.''
Eldest sibling Fergus, 60, a biomedical scientist in London, says Sean felt trapped into helping their mother. ''I don't condemn my brother for what he did - if I was there at the time and had a lot of courage I might have been prepared to do the same.'' He questions, though, his brother's decision to publish his diary. ''If he had been very quiet about it none of this would have happened … Obviously I wish it hadn't happened to him. In some ways he has dug his own ditch.''
Sean Davison is now marking off his days in home detention on the wall. ''I phone home by Skype but … I find it very upsetting to see my children and not being able to be with them,'' he says.
His mother's death has transformed him into a campaigner for the legalisation of euthanasia. ''I think it is an individual's right to choose the time of their death, especially when they're terminally ill and there is no pleasure in life,'' he says. ''I started to feel if I didn't take a stand it would have been cowardly, because I knew what I had done was right and I knew a law change was right, and to not stand up … would have been cowardly.''