The UDHR and the limits of medical ethics: The case of South Africa

Leonard Rubenstein, Leslie London

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The leadership of South Africa's medical profession remained silent in the face of gross human rights violations by the apartheid government or affirmatively defended the government's conduct. While there were strong cultural and economic reasons for this alliance between leaders of the medical profession and the apartheid state, the leadership also embraced western medical ethics. As a result, when confronted about its conduct, it continually sought to defend its behavior on traditional ethical grounds. This article looks at the nature of that "ethical defense" in three areas: torture in detention, racial discrimination in health services, and breach of confidentiality in the case of political activists. The article concludes that the rules of medical ethics left too great a space for making such a defense and urges that ethical rules consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be adopted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-175
Number of pages15
JournalHealth and human rights
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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