Cardiologist Wouter Basson never violated human rights or medical ethical standards when he headed South Africa’s chemical warfare programme, the Health Professions Council heard on Friday.
Former surgeon general Niel Knobel told the council he did not agree with the views of American medical ethics expert Steven Miles that Basson had violated various World Medical Association (WMA) declarations and regulations.
Basson faces four charges of unprofessional and unethical conduct.
The charges relate to his conduct as a medical doctor when he headed the country’s chemical and biological warfare research programme for the defence force in the 1980s and early 1990s during the apartheid era.
He is accused of acting unethically in the 1980s by co-operating in the large-scale production of mandrax and cocaine, and weaponising teargas and supplying it to rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in the Angolan war.
He is also accused of acting unethically by providing disorientating substances for cross-border kidnappings and making cyanide capsules available for distribution to operatives for suicide purposes.
Knobel said Basson had been deployed as a special forces soldier during that time and not a medical doctor.
‘No doctor-patient relationship’
“If he’s deployed as a soldier and he carries a weapon, he’s entitled to defend himself and his colleagues. In a combat situation he’s part of a combat unit and there’s no doctor-patient relationship,” he said.
“If afterwards, one of his colleagues is wounded and he attends to him, then he’s acting as a medical doctor.”
He said the war in Angola was not conventional, as the opposing forces did not recognise international treaties and conventions.
“Circumstances might lead one to a situation where ethics in a time of war are not always the same as in a time of peace.”
He said he did not regard it as unethical for a medical doctor to provide a soldier with a cyanide capsule under certain circumstances.
Knobel argued that medical conventions and ethics had changed with development of new technology.
“In our country it was totally illegal to perform an abortion. Today if a doctor in a state hospital refused to perform an abortion, he or she will probably be charged. Our ethical rules change as we go along,” he said.
“I’m a member of the WMA, but we have to realise it’s not a perfect world we live in. Attitudes change and the world we live in changes along with them.”
He said the aim of the chemical warfare programme had always been to develop a defensive capability without using lethal or harmful substances.
He testified that the research material gathered under the programme was still regarded as a national asset and that former president Nelson Mandela had approved the safe storage of the material and the continuation of the defensive chemical warfare programme in 1997.
The hearing was postponed to September 25. — Sapa