Dr Mzukisi Grootboom, chairman of the South African Medical Association, says doctors should save lives. File picture:RUSSELL ROBERTS
Dr Mzukisi Grootboom, chairman of the South African Medical Association, says doctors should save lives. File picture:RUSSELL ROBERTS

EVEN if the law were to permit medical practitioners to help patients end their lives, the ethical rules of the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) would not allow this, SA’s biggest doctor organisation, the South African Medical Association (Sama), warned on Monday.

This means that should a doctor help a terminally ill patient to die, he or she could face disciplinary action from the HPCSA, Sama chairman Mzukisi Grootboom said.

"We don’t support doctors using their skills to kill a patient. That’s not what being a doctor is about," said Dr Grootboom, adding, "you must remember, ethics take precedence over the laws of the country. There are lots of countries that sent people to the gas chamber."

Dr Grootboom’s comments follow last week’s ground-breaking judgment in the High Court in Pretoria, where Judge Hans Fabricius ruled in favour of terminally ill prostate cancer patient Robin Stransham-Ford having a medically assisted death.

In his judgment, Judge Fabricius declared that no doctor was obliged to help former advocate Mr Stransham-Ford end his life, but that a doctor who did so would not be deemed to have acted unlawfully.

The order applied only to Mr Stransham-Ford, and anyone else who sought doctor-assisted suicide would need to approach the court and any such application would be considered on its own merits.

Mr Stransham-Ford died of natural causes hours before the judgment was handed down, but the judge said his ruling stood.

Sama’s position was in line with that of the World Medical Association, Dr Grootboom said on Monday. It had last month reaffirmed its policy opposing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

The World Medical Association’s position, according to a statement on its website, is that while euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are unethical, a patient had the right to decline medical treatment and if a doctor fulfilled these wishes they would not be deemed to be acting unethically.

The World Medical Association was created shortly after the Second World War to protect the independence of doctors and to promote ethical standards.

Dr Grootboom said a physician’s primary duty was to help a patient heal. "We take cognisance of the fact that dealing with end-of-life matters is not an easy matter.

"(But) there are enough drugs, and there is enough advice out there for people to deal with these issues. You need to make sure the patient has adequate support to deal with pain, so we avoid the stage where there is utter hopelessness and the doctor feels pressured and hopeless himself," he said.

Pain should not be considered a persuasive enough reason to end a person’s life, and healthcare practitioners had an obligation to advocate for resources and access to palliative care for terminally ill patients, Dr Grootboom said.

A measure of a nation’s civilisation was its capacity to provide a dignified, pain-free death to patients with terminal illness, he said.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi reportedly said he was willing to go as far as the Constitutional Court to oppose medically assisted suicide being legalised.