News – 2 March 2017

Right-to-die campaigner recognized as Australian Humanist of the Year

Photo of Dr Rodney Syme, Australian Humanist of the Year 2017Australian Humanists announce Dr Rodney Syme as the worthy recipient of the Australian Humanist of the Year award for 2017.

Dr Rodney Syme is a champion for the human rights of those facing a long and painful road to death. Born into an established medical family in Malvern, Victoria, he obtained MBBS (Melbourne) in 1959, FRCS (London) in 1965 and FRACS in 1968. He worked as a highly respected urologist at hospitals in Melbourne and overseas for most of his clinical career. Dr Syme also served as Chair of the Victorian Section of the Urological Society of Australasia from 1990 to 1992 and as Chair of the Urology Study Group of the Cancer Council of Victoria from 1992 to 1994.

In 1974, he experienced an epiphany. Unable to relieve the pain of a woman with cancer of the spine, he heard her screaming from the hospital floor above him. Of that experience, he once recounted, ‘That had the most profound effect on me. For the next 20 years after that, I thought very, very deeply. I studied the medical literature, the bioethical literature. And formulating my views, I began to make public statements. And as a consequence, complete strangers started to approach me.’ From that point on, he began to assist patients to die with dignity.

In 2007 he stated, ‘I’m not doing it quietly anymore. . . . 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.’ He adopted this stance in spite of the Australian Medical Association, which in that year ruled against accepting voluntary euthanasia.

Dr Syme was a prominent advocate for physician-assisted dying for more than twenty-five years. In that time, he served as President of Dying with Dignity Victoria for ten years (1996 to 2007) and, since then, as Vice-President. He worked tirelessly to educate the public about their rights under current laws as they apply to end of life and towards achieving legislative change to permit voluntary assisted dying. In his book, A Good Death, his desire to alleviate the suffering of the people he has helped and his respect for patient autonomy jumps up from every page.

Dr Syme promotes the cause of voluntary euthanasia or voluntary assisted dying as a basic human right. He aims to bring on a challenge to the authorities leading to legalisation of voluntary assisted death, knowing that he could be prosecuted and imprisoned. The medication he supplies is Nembutal, commonly used by vets to euthanize pets, but illegal for prescription to humans in Australia.

Dr Syme’s advancing age (80) and conscience has prompted him to put himself on the line for others. He has been questioned by police and asked to supply information to the coroner on reported deaths, complying on all occasions. Dr Syme found being handcuffed and fingerprinted a bit tough. Andrew Denton, on Australian Story, showed his admiration for Dr Syme’s work and his courage.

Dr Syme now spends most of his free time counselling those facing a painful death. Importantly, the vital decisions are made only by his clients. He has counselled well over 1,500 people, supplying about 100 of them with Nembutal. Dr Syme never refuses to meet someone needing to talk to him. He is pleased if he can help clients to another decision and believes contact with someone like himself, who may see other solutions, as necessary before choosing voluntary euthanasia.

Dr Syme doesn’t believe voluntary euthanasia should be available only for people with a terminal illness. In his book, he recognizes various forms of unrelievable suffering, etc. Currently, he is facing the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) over supplying Nembutal to Bernard Erica. Bernard is dying with tongue and lung cancer. His plight was featured in Australian Story on ABC (7th Mar, 2016).

Dr Syme is a Victorian with an outstanding record on fighting for every citizen’s right to die with dignity. We are so pleased to see his great humanism and deep compassion recognized in this award of Australian Humanist of the Year for 2017. Dr Syme will accept the award at the Australian Humanists Annual Convention dinner in Melbourne on Saturday 8th April. Visit the CAHS Convention portal for ticketing information.

More on Dr Syme’s AHOY award.

Sources:
Medical Directory of Australia, 2008
Rodney Syme, A Good Death, 2008
The Bulletin, 6th Nov, 2007
ABC RN, Encounter, ‘A Modern Death’, 23rd Nov, 2013
ABC TV, Australian Story, 7th Mar, 2016

Thanks to Mary Bergin for compiling this biography.