On the 30th April last week, a judge in the Pretoria High Court granted an application by Advocate Stransham-Ford to be assisted by a willing and qualified medical practitioner to end his life either by the administration of a lethal agent or by providing him with the necessary agent to administer himself. In other words, the applicant was granted the legal right to die and the doctor who assisted in his demise would not be prosecuted. 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. It also highlighted that the Order applied only to this index 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. Fortuitously, the patient had died that morning prior to the Court Order being issued.
Notwithstanding the Court decision that the medical practitioner who assisted the patient would not be held accountable criminally or civilly, the South African Medical Association (SAMA) cautions its practitioners that the Health Professions Council of South Africa’s (HPCSA) Policies nevertheless remain in force and such activities by practitioners could result in disciplinary sanctions by the HPCSA.
The SAMA also highlights the value of palliative care for the relief of pain and suffering for patients who are terminally ill and stresses that pain cannot be viewed as a persuasive enough reason to resort to the extreme measure to end one’s life. 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. The 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 subject.
Prepared by the Human Rights, Law and Ethics Committee of SAMA