No excuses: Basson destroyed human life, says expert
Dr Wouter Basson used his medical knowledge to destroy life while he was the head of the apartheid government’s chemical and biological weapons programme, according to US bioethics expert Professor Steven Miles.
“The ethical core of medicine is to promote health. Dr Basson’s work caused death and imminent death and brain damage,” Miles on Tuesday told the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) hearing into whether or not to revoke Basson’s medical licence.
The HPCSA has charged Basson with manufacturing dangerous chemical weapons, “weaponising thousands of 120mm mortars with teargas to be sold in Angola”, and distributing cyanide so soldiers could commit suicide if caught.
He is also charged with providing “disorientating substances to tranquilise people” who were to be kidnapped in neighbouring countries.
Basson was head of the government’s chemical and biological warfare research programme, Project Coast, from 1981 to early 1993. In 2002, he was acquitted in the Pretoria high court of a raft of criminal charges ranging from murder and fraud to drug trafficking. He now runs a cardiology practice in Cape Town.
The HPCSA hearing now under way is not a criminal trial but a professional conduct enquiry.
Bioethics brought to bear
Appearing as a witness for the prosecution, Miles argued that Basson’s actions were contrary to international ethical conventions governing doctors’ behaviour, including the World Medical Association (WMA), to which South Africa is a signatory—and was a signatory at the time of Basson’s alleged actions.
Miles is professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and former president of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities. The council invited him to act as a key witness because of his “ability to examine medical ethics in an international context”, said HPSCA spokesperson Lize Nel.
Excerpts of the WMA codes that Miles referred to include: “The following practice is deemed unethical: Any act or advice which could weaken the physical resistance of a human being.”
“The primary task of the medical profession is to preserve health and save life. Hence it is deemed unethical for physicians to employ science knowledge to imperil health and destroy life,” said Miles.
Designing and manufacturing mortars with teargas clearly served no therapeutic purpose, he said.
In his criminal trial, Basson said he had no moral problem with designing the weapons as the final consideration was that it furthered the goals of war.
But Miles argued that war did not allow doctors to harm people, quoting from the WMA’s code of ethics: “The utmost respect for human life is to be maintained, even under threat, and no use may be made of any medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity”.
Miles said Basson, whom he insisted on calling “Bassoon” on Tuesday, also behaved unethically when he ran Facility Delta G, a covert chemical warfare research facility.
The HPCSA charged Basson for producing Mandrax, teargas, the incapacitating agent BZ, and Ecstasy during his time as head of Delta G from 1982.
During his criminal trial, Basson said the facility had tested “24 different incapacitating substances ... over the years”.
On Tuesday, Miles said Basson had not been a minor player at the facility.
“He controlled a key to medical stores. He negotiated and selected substances and accepted delivery of each of these substances. The entire premise of his enterprise was the weakening and functional capacity of human beings,” he said.
“[Basson] developed instruments of war—all the way from synthesising these products to doing tests and conducting large scale production,” said Mills. “In this respect, Basson agreed to essentially oversee a large enterprise that was separate to the therapeutic nature of the healthcare profession.”
Conclusion: Unethical behaviour
Miles concluded his testimony saying that Basson’s conduct was indeed unethical, but it was up to the council to decide if he was in breach of professional conduct.
The HPCSA first charged Basson with unethical conduct in 2007. In 2008 Basson approached the Pretoria high court to have them stop the hearing. Last year, the high court ruled that the HPCSA’s hearing could continue.
The council has since decided not to proceed with several of the charges, including the allegation that Basson tested drugs without medical supervision on members of the police force; that he manufactured and weaponised drugs between 1991 and 1993 at a place called Swartklip; and a charge involving his acceptance as head of Project Coast.
Miles did not have enough evidence to show that Basson behaved unethically in these cases.