19 May 2015

SA doctors warned against assisted suicide

Doctors who help terminally ill patients to die could face disciplinary action from the Health Professions Council of SA, cautions the South African Medical Association.


South Africa biggest medical organisation, the South African Medical Association (SAMA), has cautioned its practitioners that they risk disciplinary action if they help patients end their lives.

In an unprecedented judgment in North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, Judge Hans Fabricius ruled in favour of 65-year-old Robin Stransham-Ford to have a medically assisted death. However, Stransham-Ford, who was terminally ill with prostate cancer, died of natural causes hours before the judgment was handed down, but the judge said his ruling stood.

Read: Health24's CyberDoc asked euthanasia prof to help him die

While assisted suicide or euthanasia is illegal in South Africa, with doctors facing jail time of up to 14 years, Judge Fabricius ruled that a doctor helping Stransham-Ford would not be prosecuted.

Risk of disciplinary sanctions

Despite this, SAMA chairperson Dr Mzukisi Grootboom, said disciplinary sanctions could still be enforced.

The rules of the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) don't allow assisted suicide. "The HPCSA's policies remain in force, and such activities by practitioners could result in disciplinary sanctions by the HPCSA," he said.

"Pain cannot be viewed as a persuasive enough reason to resort to the extreme measure to end one’s life".

SAMA also highlighted the value of palliative care for the relief of pain and suffering for patients who are terminally ill.

Quality palliative care

"Healthcare practitioners have obligations to patients in the palliative care setting and these duties extend to that of advocating for access to quality palliative care for patients who are terminally ill," said Dr Mzukisi Grootboom.

He pointed out that SAMA does not support the right to die in law, and opposes euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide in line with the HPCSA’s policies and the World Medical Association’s Guidelines and Codes on the matter.

The High Court emphasised that the order should not be read as endorsing the proposals of the end of life decisions bill in the Law Commission report of November 1998.

Read: SA doctor banned for euthanasia of his father

It also highlighted that the order applied only to Stransham-Ford's case and that anyone who required the assistance of a medical practitioner to commit suicide would need to approach the court and that each application would be considered on its own merits.

Landmark court ruling up for appeal

The Department of Health, together with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, is set to appeal the landmark court ruling.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said doctors should not be given the right to end a person’s life because they were not God.

He said the judgment also had the potential to give rise to fraud and unethical behaviour among doctors, reported sister news website City Press.

Read: Young brain cancer sufferer ends life with dignity

Very soon we will start hearing stories of families colluding with doctors to end the life of their loved ones because they wanted to cash in on insurance policies. Some people may even start planning their deaths because they know that their policies are maturing.

“We can’t have that situation in South Africa because it would be difficult to police and deal with. To prevent it, we must stop it before it goes any further,” said Motsoaledi.

What do you think? Should assisted suicide be allowed? Let us know in the comments.

Read more:

Health24's CyberDoc passes away

Former nurse convicted of assisting suicides

Physician-assisted suicide programme rarely used

Image: Folding some hands for condolence and comfort from Shutterstock.


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