False appeal to double effect as Syme runs the gauntlet against existing assisted suicide laws


Welcome news today from Victoria that police have finally interviewed Dr Rodney Syme over the Nembutal death of Steve Guest nine years ago.

As The Age report reminds us, Syme admitted publicly in April this year that he had 'given Steve Guest Nembutal in 2005 while he was dying from oesophageal cancer.'

At the World Federation of Right To Die Societies (WFRTDS) conference in Chicago last month, Australia's other 'Dr Death', Rodney Syme gave a talk entitled 'Challenging the legal system and getting away with it'. While Syme has recently and quite desperately attempted to distance the pro-euthanasia movement from the media furore over the actions of Philip Nitschke and Exit, he nevertheless also occasionally sails 'close to the wind' in terms of the law as the title of his talk suggests. Is it possible that, in the wake of the furore over Nitschke and Exit International and by goading the police by the title of his talk, that he may not now 'get away with it'?

At WFRTDS another activist, Sean Davison from South Africa, also admitted to helping a paralysed man commit suicide. I wondered at the time if saying so was a 'badge of honour' or some right-to-die right of passage!

The Age writer, Julia Medew contextualizes Syme's admission in reference to his agenda:

In his April interview with The Age, Dr Syme dared police to charge him with a criminal offence over Mr Guest's death because it could set a useful legal precedent for doctors who are too scared to help terminally ill people end their lives. Over the past 20 years, he has watched state parliaments reject 16 euthanasia bills.

Sounds a bit desperate to me.

From Syme's police report (as quoted by Medew):

"The Medical Treatment Act states that it is desirable that dying patients receive maximum relief of pain and suffering. I did not intend that Steve Guest end his own life. I could foresee the possibility that he might do so, but it was not my intention that he do so. My intention was to provide the most effective palliation for his psychological and existential suffering. There is ample evidence in medical and palliative care literature that the provision of control is a powerful palliative intervention."

Here Syme is erroneously trying to associate what he did - providing a schedule one and banned drug, Nembutal - with efficacious legitimate end-of-life care. His is a false claim to the principle of double effect. False because what he did was hardly in proportion to the need and because the patient (Mr Guest) did not die from the underlying illness.

The common law definition of the principle of Double Effect was created in 1957 by UK Judge Patrick Devlin in the murder trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams.
The extended passage from that judgement follows:

If the first purpose of medicine, the restoration of health, can no longer be achieved, there is still much for a doctor to do, and he is entitled to do all that is proper and necessary to relieve pain and suffering, even if the measures he takes may incidentally shorten life.

This is not because there is a special defence for medical men but because no act is murder which does not cause death. We are not dealing here with the philosophical or technical cause, but with the common sense cause.

The cause of death is the illness or the injury, and the proper medical treatment that is administered and that has an incidental effect on determining the exact moment of death is not the cause of death in any sensible use of the term. But ... no doctor, nor any man, no more in the case of the dying than of the healthy, has the right deliberately to cut the thread of life.

Devlin clearly annunciates the necessary connection between the action, the intention and the outcome; being death from the underlying illness and not from the self-administering of an illegal substance.

Syme is clearly intent on: one; making euthanasia an issue in the pending Victorian election and, two; attempting to change the law through court action or police inaction.

The Age article closes: A spokeswoman for Victoria Police confirmed a man was interviewed today over Mr Guest's death, but said it would be inappropriate to comment on the possibility of charges while the investigation was ongoing.

Other articles on this issue:
Compromises and inconsistencies in the pro-death camp - it will ever be thus
The irresponsibility of those who argue for the 'right to die'.
Looking for the foot in the door: euphemisms in euthanasia & assisted suicide debate
What's in a name? Responding to Dr Syme.