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When South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu turned 85 years old, he shared a message. He wants the option of an assisted death. That's currently illegal in South Africa, and Tutu says he supports a right to what he calls a dignified death in his country and throughout the world. Peter Granitz reports from Pretoria.
PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Archbishop Tutu is considered the moral conscience of South Africa. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his anti-apartheid activism, and he chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission which probed human rights abuses committed by all parties during the war that ended white minority rule.
So some were taken aback when the archbishop emeritus of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa said he wants the option to end his life when he chooses.
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DESMOND TUTU: As a Christian, I believe in the sanctity of life and that death is a part of life. I hope that when the time comes, I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life's journey in the manner of my choice.
GRANITZ: That's currently illegal in South Africa. The Supreme Court of Appeal reaffirmed that stance earlier this month when it struck down a lower court's ruling that granted an applicant the right to euthanasia.
Tutu, who's lived with prostate cancer for decades and has been in and out of the hospital in recent years, has supported physician-assisted dying for some time, and he says he supports efforts around the globe to legalize the procedure.
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TUTU: I pray that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth with dignity and love.
GRANITZ: Tutu made that video for advocacy groups which support so-called death with dignity laws. Parishioners file into St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral as the organ starts a few minutes early. The hundred-year-old stone church sits in the middle of tall government buildings in downtown Pretoria.
Musima Gwangwa says Tutu's leadership in ending apartheid and the stances he's taken on human rights abuses around the world serve as a model that Anglicans like her should try and emulate.
MUSIMA GWANGWA: He's more than an icon for us.
GRANITZ: She supports Tutu's desire to control the end of his life, but not all parishioners agree. For Richard Botha, the archbishop's decision is a confounding one. He calls Tutu a global elder, someone willing to criticize leaders for poor judgment. But Tutu's support for euthanasia does not comport with Botha's religious beliefs.
RICHARD BOTHA: I won't remember him for that. I'll remember him for his credentials and his human rights struggle.
GRANITZ: Archbishop Tutu declined NPR's interview request. He's effectively retired from public life, but he's been making his feelings known in editorials. In them, he described as disgraceful Nelson Mandela's last days and how Mandela, known here as Madiba, was used as a political prop in photo ops despite being unable to communicate.
It was an affront to Madiba's his legacy, Tutu wrote in The Guardian newspaper. He went on to argue that South Africa needed to revisit its laws regarding a person's right to die. Judges wrote in last week's ruling they'd welcome action from parliament, meaning the legislature and not the courts should determine whether euthanasia will be legal in South Africa. Advocates for assisted dying could take the case to the constitutional court.
Whatever the outcome of the legal case in South Africa, right to die advocates say Tutu's support for the issue can guide conflicted people across the globe. Barbara Coombs Lee heads Compassion and Choices, a group that lobbies for assisted dying in the United States.
BARBARA COOMBS LEE: It helps to hear a person who has dedicated his life to religion and about whom there's no question that they are deeply religious to say there's no incompatibility between a deep religious faith and support for medical aid in dying.
GRANITZ: At 85 years old, it's unclear whether Archbishop Tutu will win his last social campaign in his home country. And like many times before, this effort is personal. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.
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