Another story, another push for euthanasia

Yesterday the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers ramped up its editorial support for euthanasia laws by publishing yet another story about a person with a difficult diagnosis who wants the 'option' of killing himself. Predictably they also editorialised on the same issue at a time when every other newspaper is covering such pressing matters as the national budget, dealing with the threat of terrorism, social disadvantage etc. 

This new story feature's Victoria's own 'doctor death', Dr Rodney Syme, vice president of the Victorian pro-euthanasia lobby, and records in words, images and video Syme handing the person a bottle identified as containing Nembutal. Syme has admitted providing Nembutal to others. In 2014, he admitted, in the same newspaper, that he gave Steve Guest Nembutal in the weeks before Guest killed himself in 2005. Syme was effectively goading the Victorian Police into action; the article reporting his thoughts as follows:

"Dr Syme, 78, said after watching state Parliaments reject 16 euthanasia bills over the past 20 years he was ready to "out" himself and be charged over Mr Guest's death because a court case could set a useful legal precedent for doctors who are too scared to help terminally ill people end their own lives."

According to reports, the police did investigate; but the issue went quiet and no charges have apparently been brought in that regard. This is hardly surprising at one level. Nine years after the event what proof would there be to confirm what, after all, was essentially media grandstanding by Syme.

This current situation is different. The Age article quotes from Syme as he hands over the Nembutal and the event is also recorded in still images and video:

"He hands the bottle over. "That's medication for you - some Nembutal," he says. "You need to take that by mouth, and you will have total control of that. It's not my intention that you take it. I hope you don't need to take it. But if you run into a brick wall, then that is what I sometimes call the key to the fire escape."


"If you take it," says Dr Syme, "you will go to sleep relatively quickly and peacefully, and you will not wake up."

Delivery, prescription, advice; it's all there - and in front of witnesses.

Again, it seems that Syme is keen to push the envelope; to goad the police into action. Time will tell whether or not he gets his wish.

So what's the take-away message from all of this? Syme and The Age clearly want us to think of Syme as some sort of modern day martyr for a cause. The gentleman concerned and his medical issues are simply a vehicle for that; a tug at the emotions. We've seen it all before.

But hard cases always make for bad law. As I was quoted in the article as saying, there are plenty of other stories, particularly from Belgium and The Netherlands, which should provide cause for pause, for deeper consideration.

And Syme may well see himself as some sort of civil rights activist who is prepared for some sort of civil disobedience in a fight for justice. There is no real comparison at any level, in my opinion, between what he is doing and the great civil rights campaigners we have known. For one thing, no civil rights campaigner ever fought a case that, if successful, would end up with doctors making people dead as a result. Secondly, what characterized the great civil movements were issues of equality of treatment and basic freedoms common to all humankind, not some elitist argument of questionable benefit to only a few at the expense of the vulnerable, the disabled, etc.

What we can learn and should learn from Syme's behaviour is very simple: There will always be those who will challenge the law either publicly, like Syme, or privately for fear of the consequences. When such a challenge makes people dead we should all be concerned that public policy should be driven by such actions.

The Age, of course, only wants 'physician-assisted death, under rigorously regulated circumstances for terminally ill people suffering intolerably'. I accept that they are genuine. But once the human defences against killing embodied in the law are breeched, there will always be someone somewhere, some set of supposedly compelling circumstances that will widen that breech. The testimony of former a former supporter of the Dutch law, Professor Theo Boer provides a clear and well defined window into precisely such occurrences.

Whether by way of another doctor at some time wishing to push back at another supposed boundary (like that described by The Age) or by doctors simply extending the reach of who can be killed by their own judgement, this flimsy and irrational new 'line in the sand' suggested by The Age and others, will not hold; it is foolhardy and exceedingly dangerous to think otherwise.