The right to physical integrity and informed refusal: Just how far does a patient’s right to refuse medical treatment go?

Annelize Nienaber, Kirsten Nicole Bailey


The article presents a legal analysis of the right to physical integrity as guaranteed by the South African Constitution, 1996, and the subsequent right of a competent adult person to refuse medical treatment under South African law. We consider whether the right to refuse treatment is an absolute right and very briefly reflect on the application of the constitutional limitations clause to this right. Instances in which patients’ right to physical integrity is limited by factors, which detract from (patient) autonomy, are considered: these represent a limitation of their right to refuse medical treatment. We conclude that forced medical interventions, for the most part, are not desirable but, indeed, necessary in some narrowly defined circumstances. When a person makes a decision to refuse a medical intervention, which may seem unusual or may be perceived as irrational, it does not mean that person does not warrant the protection of the constitution and the courts. Provided that the patient makes an informed refusal while of sound mind, generally there is no reason to discredit his/her decision, difficult as it may be for others to accept. At all times the right to bodily integrity is pivotal in any health-related context and should not be lightly disregarded.

Authors' affiliations

Annelize Nienaber, University of Pretoria

Kirsten Nicole Bailey, Bowman Gilfillan Africa Group

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refusal of consent to medical interventions; right to physical integrity; autonomy; Constitution

Cite this article

South African Journal of Bioethics and Law 2016;9(2):73. DOI:10.7196/SAJBL.2016.v9i2.472

Article History

Date submitted: 2016-05-11
Date published: 2016-10-18

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