The Grand Old Man of assisted suicide in Australia, Dr Rodney Syme, died last week at the age of 86, after suffering a stroke.
He began campaigning for “Voluntary Assisted Dying” (VAD) in 1974 after one of his patients died with intractable pain.
He not only gave advice to hundreds of people about dying, he also provided them with lethal medications when it was still illegal. “I’m not doing it quietly anymore,” he told a radio host in 2007. “I’ve sailed close to the wind, no doubt about it, but the law is hypocritical and I’m not the only doctor who is operating in this murky terrain. It’s just that I’m prepared to say so publicly.”
In 2016, the Australian Medical Board banned him from providing advice to terminally ill patients, although he successfully appealed against the ruling.
In 2019, after euthanasia was legalised in Victoria, where he lived, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to social welfare initiatives and to law reform.
His defiance of the law made him a hero to the right-to-die movement. As right-to-die campaigner Andrew Denton, wrote:
“I don’t know – and perhaps only Rodney’s careful records will reveal – how many people he provided with medication which gave them control over their final weeks and months. I do know that, every time he did it, he was breaking the law. And I also know, from having met some of those people, that his courage, compassion and ‘due care’ made a profound difference to their lives.”
In fact, we do know how many. In 2018 Dr Syme told the TV program 60 Minutes that he had assisted 300 people to die. Presumably many, most, or even all of those deaths were cases of illegal assistance.
Mr Denton eulogised Dr Syme on the Go Gentle Australia blog as if he were Mahatma Gandhi: “the mighty oak has fallen. There seems a vast, empty space in the forest where he once stood. That familiar, comforting shadow no longer cast.”
But with his lack of transparency about the patients he helped to die and his defiance of the law, Rodney Syme seems an odd patron saint for legalised euthanasia. That’s exactly what its opponents complain about.
Consider this. The convicted British serial killer Dr Harold Shipman killed 250 of his patients between 1975 and 1998. What is the difference between Dr Shipman and Dr Syme? Both acted illegally. The former killed his patients without their consent and the latter with their consent. There has never been any suggestion, to my knowledge, that Dr Syme helped someone to die involuntarily.
But how can we be sure? We can’t. We are forced to rely upon Dr Syme’s own avowals of his good intentions. That’s not good enough in a democratic society based on the rule of law. There is one law for everyone, not one law for compassionate doctors and another law for the rest of us.
If this is the way that legalised euthanasia begins in Australia, how is it going to finish?