Opinionista Louis Reynolds 21 January 2015

Why Wouter Basson should be removed from the medical register

Basson’s credibility as a medical professional is not about whether there is proof that he killed anyone. It is about whether he has fundamental respect for the sanctity of human life.

Once again Dr Wouter Basson seems to have delayed or escaped being held accountable for his actions as head of the Apartheid government’s chemical and biological weapons programme. I would like to explain why the People’s Health Movement in South Africa (PHMSA), Section 27, at least 30 other civil society organisations and a considerable number of health professionals think that Dr Basson should be removed from the Health Professions Council of South Africa’s professional register.

We accept that the country needs cardiologists and that Dr Basson is an excellent cardiologist. It is also true that in his criminal trial on 67 charges relating to murder, conspiracy to murder, drug offences and fraud, Judge Hartzenberg ruled that the State had failed to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that he was guilty as charged. Furthermore, his lawyers argue that he was merely following orders as a soldier and that there is no proof that he killed anyone.

However, the case before the Council is not about whether Basson killed anyone or not, but about medical ethics and professionalism. Unlike in a criminal court, a guilty finding on violations of medical ethics does not require proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. The stakes are far higher: they are about knowing what is right and wrong, and go to the heart of what being a health professional is all about.

Health professionals are bound by universally accepted ethical codes that are based on a fundamental principle of ‘Respect for Persons’. On entering the profession doctors in South Africa and in most parts of the world make this pledge from the Declaration of Geneva:

“I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from its beginning even under threat and I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.”

This, and a set of ethical principles, form the basis of a Social Contract with the public that defines health professionalism. Violation of this social contract invalidates the very notion of professionalism.

The HPCSA is the guardian of professionalism in South Africa. It publishes Guidelines for Good Practice in the Health Care Professions. These guidelines indicate the standards of professional conduct against which complaints of professional misconduct are judged. Their preamble says that “Practice as a health care professional is based upon a relationship of mutual trust between patients and health care practitioners. The term ‘profession’ means ‘a dedication, promise or commitment publicly made’. To be a good health care practitioner requires a life-long commitment to sound professional and ethical practices and an overriding dedication to the interests of ones fellow human beings and society. In essence, practice as a health care professional is a moral enterprise”.

In 2003 the Council found that Basson had committed violations that were in conflict with medical ethics and represented unprofessional conduct.

The Council based this finding on facts that were not disputed at his criminal trial, including his involvement in the production of large quantities of illegal psychoactive drugs; equipping mortars with teargas; providing operatives with disorienting substances to help with illegal kidnapping; and providing cyanide capsules to SADF soldiers so that they could commit suicide to avoid revealing information under torture. 

Among other serious matters not considered by the Council was an allegation that Basson had been involved in the attempted development of a vaccine with the purpose of making black women infertile — the “Black Bomb”. 

The intention behind such a programme is tantamount to genocide — Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines imposing measures aimed at preventing births within a specific group as genocide. When a journalist, Rob Coen, asked Dr Basson about his role in the “Back Bomb” programme, he joked “that was great … the most fun I’ve had in my life”. This conversation can be seen here.

Basson’s flippant remark shows a total lack of remorse and understanding of right and wrong, and no grasp of professional ethics.

The defence argument that he was acting as a soldier and not as a doctor does nothing to absolve him. And his competencies as a cardiologist are eclipsed by the fact that he does not know or care what is right or wrong.

Basson committed his acts with the clear intention of doing harm to fellow humans and to humanity. He committed them in defence of Apartheid, a system which had been declared a crime against humanity by the world community. He needed and used his professional knowledge and skills to commit them. And he did all this while he was a registered medical doctor.

His lack of respect for human life, the evil intent and magnitude of his violations, and his total lack of remorse, provide a compelling case for why Dr Wouter Basson cannot remain a member of a noble profession he has undermined so profoundly. DM


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