Provoking the law on euthanasia

May 20th, 2015  |  Published in Euthanasia; Suicide

euth3Dr Rodney Syme has been deliberately provoking Australian law on euthanasia for twenty years, having assisted thirty deaths since 1996. He describes his motivation in terms of professional ethics, and sees his behavior as a form of non-violent civil disobedience.

I am writing this post to put Syme’s newspaper article of 13 May 2015 on record. Laws relevant to euthanasia are overdue for serious political  attention in this country, and he provides a landmark of the status quo as well as insight into his own postion (and presumably that of other pro-euthanasia medical practitioners). He writes:

  • Doctors have an ethical obligation to relieve suffering and respect the autonomy of their patients.
  • Dying can be accompanied by intolerable suffering which euth2may escalate as death approaches.
  • “What should a doctor do,” he asks, “if his conscience tells him he should provide relief from that suffering, if asked by a competent patient?”
  • Should doctors hasten death – with the sword of Damocles hovering over their hands – committing crimes in the process?
  • “I have,” he says, “for reasons of conscience and perverse nature, been challenging the law surrounding end-of-life decisions for nearly 20 years.”
  • Sometimes the law needs a shove, and non-violent civil disobedience can be that shove.

Syme’s position is controversial within the medical profession, as well as among politicians and the general population. Following the publication of the article cited above, he was “uninvited” to give a plenary address at the annual conference of the Royal College of Physicians, although the college would not acknowledge any connection, claiming the decision was made “before the publication of his most recent action.”

In addition to the issue of euthanasia, Syme raises important questions about the role of civil disobedience in achieving social change. Such questions are particularly important in Australia right now when social justice and human rights are being seriously eroded by a hard-right neoliberal government led by Tony Abbott.

To be clear about my own position, I think it is time to stop the general downward spiral, and I certainly want the option of making my own end-of-life decisions. I would take part in non-violent civil disobedience to achieve these goals…Joan Beckwith.


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