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Report No. 196

Summary of Recommendations

The advances made in medical science and especially the application of medical technology have resulted in patients living longer. For some patients this signifies a welcome prolongation of meaningful life, but for others the result is a poor quality of life which inevitably raises the question whether treatment is a benefit or a burden.

Worldwide increased importance is furthermore being attached to patient autonomy. The need has therefore arisen to consider the protection of a mentally competent patient's right to refuse medical treatment or to receive assistance, should he or she so require, in ending his or her unbearable suffering by the administering or supplying of a lethal substance to the patient. The position of the incompetent patient, as well as the patient who is clinically dead, has to be clarified as well.

Some matters concerning the treatment of terminally ill people are at present being dealt with on a fairly ad hoc basis, there is some degree of uncertainty in the minds of the general public and medical personnel about the legal position in this regard. Doctors and families want to act in the best interest of the patient, but are unsure about the scope and content of their obligation to provide care.

Doctors are furthermore afraid of being exposed to civil claims, criminal prosecution and professional censure should they withhold life support systems or prescribe drugs which may inadvertently or otherwise shorten the patient's life, even if they are merely complying with the wishes of the patient.

The South African Law Commission recommended the enactment of legislation to give effect to the following principles:

"A medical practitioner may, under specified circumstances, cease or authorize the cessation of all further medical treatment of a patient whose life functions are being maintained artificially while the person has no spontaneous respiratory and circulatory functions or where his or her brainstem does not register any impulse.

A competent person may refuse any life-sustaining medical treatment with regard to any specific illness from which he or she may be suffering, even though such refusal may cause the death of such a person.

A medical practitioner or, under specified circumstances, a nurse may relieve the suffering of a terminally ill patient by prescribing sufficient drugs to control the pain of the patient adequately even though the secondary effect of this conduct may be the shortening of the patient's life.

A medical practitioner may, under specified circumstances, give effect to an advance directive or enduring power of attorney of a patient regarding the refusal or cessation of medical treatment or the administering of palliative care, provided that these instructions have been issued by the patient while mentally competent.

A medical practitioner may, under specified circumstances, cease or authorize the cessation of all further medical treatment with regard to terminally ill patients who are unable to make or communicate decisions concerning their medical treatment, provided that his or her conduct is in accordance with the wishes of the family of the patient or authorized by a court order."

As regards 'active voluntary euthanasia', the Commission does not make a specific recommendation. The Commission sets out different options to deal with this issue. These options were identified through comments received:

"Option 1: Confirmation of the present legal position: The arguments in favour of legalising euthanasia are not sufficient reason to weaken society's prohibition of intentional killing since it is considered to be the cornerstone of the law and of all social relationships. Whilst acknowledging that there may be individual cases in which euthanasia may seem to be appropriate., these cannot establish the foundation of a general pro-euthanasia policy. It would furthermore be impossible to establish sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse.

Option 2: Decision making by the medical practitioner: The practice of 'active euthanasia' is regulated through legislation in terms of which a medical practitioner may give effect to the request of a terminally ill, but mentally competent patient to make an end to the patient's unbearable suffering by administering or providing a lethal agent to the patient. The medical practitioner has to adhere to strict safeguards in order to prevent abuse.

Option 3: Decision making by a panel or committee: The practice of 'active euthanasia' is regulated through legislation in terms of which a multi-disciplinary panel or committee is instituted to consider requests for euthanasia according to set criteria."

Medical Treatment to Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Back

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