Withholding or withdrawing treatment and palliative treatment hastening death: The real reason why doctors are not held legally liable for murder

David Jan McQuoid-Mason


Doctors who hasten the termination of the lives of their patients by withholding or withdrawing treatment or prescribing a potentially fatal palliative dose of medication satisfy the elements of intention and causation of a charge of murder against them. However, the courts have held that, for policy reasons based on ‘society’s legal convictions’, such conduct is not unlawful if the patient consented to it or medical treatment would be futile or palliative treatment may hasten death. Doctors are not held liable for murder because society regards their omissions or acts as lawful – not because they did not have the intention in law to kill or did not cause the death of their patients. 

Author's affiliations

David Jan McQuoid-Mason, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

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murder; withholding treatment; withdrawing treatment; fatal palliative care; lawfulness

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2014;104(2):102-103. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.7405

Article History

Date submitted: 2013-08-23
Date published: 2013-10-11

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