Euthanasia in SA is starting to look a lot more likely
Most medical students are in favour of it, and a crucial court case on it is coming up
More than half of future doctors support the legalisation of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
Almost 53% of medical students surveyed at Stellenbosch University back a change in the law, according to findings published in the June edition of the South African Medical Journal.
In the only similar study, by the Ethics Institute of South Africa in 2001, only 43% of doctors supported changes to right-to-die legislation.Religious students among the third-, fourth- and fifth-year medics at Stellenbosch expressed the greatest reservations about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
Almost 80% of the 46 Muslim students who completed the 16-part questionnaire compiled by Ryan Jacobs and Melany Hendricks at Stellenbosch’s Centre for Medical Ethics and Law said they would attempt to persuade patients to opt for palliative care.Later this year, the Johannesburg High Court is expected to hear an application calling for the legalisation of euthanasia for consenting patients. It was submitted last September by Dr Sue Walter, 43, and Dieter Harck, 68, who said the symptoms of their illnesses were “torture”.
Harck was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in June 2013. Walter has multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects the plasma cells in bone marrow.
The last euthanasia case that came to court, in 2015, involved advocate Robin Stransham-Ford, who won the right to die only two hours after dying. The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein overturned the decision on a technicality, saying euthanasia was “a doctrine that may be in the womb of time, but whose birth is distant”.Jacobs and Hendricks said the time to consider changing the law was “fast approaching”, which meant it was important to explore doctors’ attitudes towards helping patients end their lives.
“The euthanasia discourse is re-emerging against the backdrop of an ageing population and the advancement of medical technologies that ultimately ensure longevity under dire medical circumstances, including longevity of patients with intractable mental illnesses,” they said.
The researchers were worried about the 54.2% of medical students who pronounced themselves reluctant to help mentally ill patients end their lives, saying they displayed poor understanding of “the concept of futility of treatment in psychiatry”.Some of the key findings in the research were:
52.7% of students were in favour of legalising euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but 63.5% would still attempt to persuade patients to choose palliative care instead;
57% believed patients should have the final decision about ending their lives, but only 47% believed doctors should be allowed to help patients fulfil these requests;
90.6% said they would not help patients to die if they had no known treatable illness; and
80.1% said they would prefer to have a dedicated ethics team to decide on which patients are eligible for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
Jacobs and Hendricks said the “slippery slope” argument against euthanasia — that the consequences of permitting it might dehumanise society — was unlikely to be an issue with their cohort of medical students, “as the majority demonstrated that they are fairly discriminatory about who to perform these life-ending interventions for”...