Medical students’ perspectives on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and their views on legalising these practices in South Africa
Background. Euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide have been a controversial and sometimes taboo topic for a long time, not only in South Africa (SA) but also internationally. A recent (SA) judicial case has seen the topic debated again. Consensus on accepting or abolishing these practices in SA has yet to be reached. All relevant role players need to be adequately engaged before policy can be informed.
Objectives. To determine the views of future doctors (medical students) regarding euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and to ascertain their stance on its legalisation in South Africa (SA).
Methods. A paper-based, semi-quantitative descriptive study design consisting of 16 questions, using convenience sampling of third- to fifth-year medical students at Stellenbosch University, was used.
Results. The overall response rate was 69.3% (N=277). In total, 52.7% of participants (n=146) felt that the practices of euthanasia/PAS should be legalised in SA. Responses varied depending on patient morbidities. If a patient had terminal disease with intractable suffering, 41.9% of participants would terminate the patient’s life upon request. A further 36.1% of participants stated that they would have no part in ending a patient’s life, while 35.0% said that they would be comfortable with providing the patient with the correct means to end their life (PAS). The majority (80.1%) of participants indicated that they would prefer a dedicated ethics committee to decide who receives euthanasia/PAS. Many factors influenced participants’ responses, but differences in opinion between and within the various religious groups were particularly evident in the responses received.
Conclusions. More than half the respondents in this study were open to legalising euthanasia/PAS, substantially more than in previous studies. However, only 41.9% of respondents would consider actually performing euthanasia/PAS, for certain patients. Views of other healthcare workers as well as the public are required before policy can be informed.