Right to Life Supersedes Religious Rights
Today the Gauteng Department of Health announced the outcome of a crucial, yet brief, human rights case. Today, a twelve-year-old girl was saved from her death, a fate she was sure to meet partly due to the interference of her own parents in her emergency medical treatment. The Department of Health sought an urgent court interdict to overrule the parents’ wishes that the child should not have the medical care she needed. SABC news reported that the unnamed parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses but were unable to reach any church spokesperson to interview them on the matter. One of their core beliefs is that blood transfusions may not be given or received (it is seen an offence which can be used in evidence for excommunication from the church).
So why was this case concluded so quickly? How could it be that the very first court approached on the matter gave a binding ruling which was not challenged at the Supreme Court or the Constitutional Court? It is a matter of the battle of constitutional rights after all – the right to life versus the right to religious freedom.
The answer is that the constitution has a very useful caveat that goes with the right to religious expression. The relevant section is very clear and unambiguous so there are no grounds for constitutional challenge to the ruling. The relevant sections of the Bill of Rights within the South African Constitution are Section 11 and section 31.
Section 11 very simply states:
Everyone has the right to life.
Whereas Section 31 allows the practice of religious rituals and customs as long as they don’t infringe on other rights.
31. Cultural, religious and linguistic communities
- Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community
- to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and
- to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.
- The rights in subsection (1) may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.
It is also noticeable that the right to life is not dependant on whether or not other rights are infringed. From this we can clearly conclude that the right to life supersedes any religious rights. As it should be.
But I can’t help wonder if there will be a time when a person will die in the time that it takes to jump these legal hurdles. Is it not time to issue a statement that these dangerous beliefs should always be ignored because of the imminent threat to life?