Doctoral Research Advocates for Euthanasia Law Reform

Dr Suhayfa Bhamjee.
Dr Suhayfa Bhamjee.

Physician-administered euthanasia (PAE) and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) are considered murder in South Africa. Law academic and PhD graduate Dr Suhayfa Bhamjee’s research proposes a legal framework which empowers patients and doctors, while respecting the right to life, dignity, autonomy, and the rule of law.

‘The Law Reform Commission investigated euthanasia in 1996; however, the law has still not developed to accommodate patient autonomy in voluntary euthanasia situations. This raises the question of whether the euthanasia question has been euthanised. The more I engaged in dinner-time and social conversations, it was clear that people from all walks of life were asking this question,’ said Bhamjee.

The research entitled: Death and Dying in a Constitutional Democracy – An Analysis of the South African Criminal Law and a Call for Law Reform, earned Bhamjee first place and the People’s Choice Award in the UKZN Three-Minute Thesis Competition in 2022, which led to her representing the University at the National Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition where she came second. It was supervised by Professors Managay Reddi and Warren Freedman.

‘Currently, a doctor who helps a patient (at the patient’s request) to end his/her life can be prosecuted and convicted of murder. This rule is well established in that consent is never accepted as a defence to a charge of murder, even in PAS/PAE scenarios. So, a key question answered was why the law does not accept that people can consent to their own deaths and whether the same reason is justifiable in PAS/PAE situations. Medically-assisted dying should, like all other healthcare choices, be one that is available to patients so that they can make an end-of-life decision that best suits their needs and desires. Through appropriate law reform, we can take PAS/PAE outside of the ambit of the crime of murder by looking at consent in a more focused and situation-specific way. My thesis argues for the decriminalisation of PAS/PAE by examining the foundational principles of criminal law, medical-professional ethics, and patients’ rights through the lens of the Constitution,’ said Bhamjee.

She hopes that her work will persuade lawmakers and advocates to champion constitutionally guaranteed rights for patients who want the right to choose.

Words: Thandiwe Jumo

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini

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