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‘Doctors are not God’ says health minister about assisted suicide

2015-05-03 15:00

Health minister is determined to stop the decriminalisation of assisted suicide

Giving doctors the right to end a life is dangerous and could lead to a situation in which unscrupulous families arrange the premature deaths of their terminally ill loved ones to cash in on insurance payments.

That was Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s reaction to a landmark court ruling in favour of a man who wanted his doctors to be granted permission to help him die.

“This judgment has the potential to give rise to fraud and unethical behaviour among doctors,” Motsoaledi said.

“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,” he said.

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

So determined is the health minister to stop the decriminalisation of assisted suicide that he is prepared to go to the Constitutional Court to fight the ruling passed in favour of Advocate Robin Stransham-Ford, who wanted to be helped to die.

“Doctors are human and make mistakes too. They can say a person has a few weeks left to live, based on medical observation, but only God can decide when a person dies,” Motsoaledi said.

He said as much as doctors played an important role in bringing life to this world, “they should not be given the right to end it because they did not create it in the first place”.

“When doctors begin their career, they take the Hippocratic Oath and pledge to do all they can to preserve life and not do anything that will intentionally harm or result in the death of a patient. Nowhere in the medical curriculum were doctors taught to kill,” he said.

Stransham-Ford (65), who had end-stage prostate cancer, approached the North Gauteng High Court seeking permission for doctors to assist him to die without them facing legal or professional consequences.

Assisted suicide or euthanasia is illegal in South Africa, and doctors who help patients to die face jail time of up to 14 years.

The health department will now join hands with the department of justice and constitutional development to appeal the judgment.

Motsoaledi said they were appealing because death was a natural process, and “no person should be allowed to assist somebody to die without facing the law”.

“It doesn’t matter that science tells you that you have two weeks to live. Doctors should not participate in that dying process. Theirs is to help with palliative care so that a patient dies with dignity,” Motsoaledi said.

In Stransham-Ford’s case, doctors had told him he had two weeks to live. But he died a few hours before the court ruled in his favour.

In his plea to the court, he submitted that he wished to end his life with dignity at his home, surrounded by his family.

Although his wish was partly fulfilled because he died surrounded by loved ones in hospital, Motsoaledi told City Press his court victory had created a mess. He explained that assisted suicide was a complex matter that even highly developed countries still battled with.

Asked about how euthanasia was different from doctors taking patients off life support, Motsoaledi said: “Life support allows nature to take its course by withholding life-sustaining treatment when doctors have reached medical futility.

“With euthanasia, doctors kill the patient at the patient’s request.”

Seven countries and a few states in the US have decriminalised euthanasia. The World Health Organisation does not support the decriminalisation of euthanasia.

Should doctors have the right to end a life?

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September 15 2019